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The man who pulled – TV documentary on A. Philip Randolph, labor leader and Civil Rights activist – includes related article

It would be hard to overstate the importance of A. Philip Randolph to the last century of American history. It would also be hard to overstate the deep shadow into which his memory has faded.

The man who exacted justice from the federal government, the labor movement and, ultimately, the nation, for Black Americans; the man who single-handedly caused the conditions under which a Black middle class could form; the man who was the wellspring for the modern civil rights movement — this man has been largely forgotten by the general public.

When children study Black History month, they rarely hear about Randolph. Even their teachers have often never heard of him.

Public television will begin to remedy that widespread ignorance with a new, 90-minute film titled, “A. Philip Randolph: For Jobs and Freedom.” Airing February 2 (check local listings), it uses archival photos and footage, audio interviews with Randolph from the 1960s and interviews with scholars and contemporaries in the labor and civil rights movements.

Produced and directed by Dante J. James, whose previous work includes the PBS series, “America’s War on Poverty: The Great Depression” and written by Juan Williams, author of “Eyes on the Prize — America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965,” the film promises to be a major contribution to Randolph’s story.

The film “is a really unique opportunity,” said Norman Hill, president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, which was founded to carry on Randolph’s work. He said that he is encouraging Randolph Institute affiliates to hold viewing parties and receptions with local NAACP branches on the day the film airs as a way to gain as wide a viewership as possible.

“No other person simultaneously was both an outstanding labor and civil rights leader,” said Hill. “Randolph’s impact on the U.S. labor movement, the civil rights struggle and the evolution of the country deserves great recognition.”

Roger Wilkins, who is on the board of WETA, the Washington public television station that sponsored the film, said that Randolph’s story is “absolutely relevant to today and his story is too little told.”

“You can talk all that morality stuff,” said Wilkins, Robinson Professor of His tory and American Culture at George Mason University (VA). “But what Randolph knew was that a person cannot be free without the capacity to make their way and provide for their families. He knew that you couldn’t have freedom without jobs.”

Among those interviewed for the film was James Farmer, founder of the Congress of Racial Equality and professor at Virginia’s Mary Washington College. Farmer agrees that many people are ignorant of Randolph’s legacy. “Even on college campuses, if you say A. Philip Randolph, students will say, `A. Philip who?'”

Farmer attributes that ignorance in part to Randolph’s “self-effacing” nature. “He applauded the entrance of new leaders. He applauded Dr. King and celebrated him …. He was eclipsed by the new leaders.”

Randolph’s work with the labor movement, moreover, “did not endear him to much of the country,” Farmer said.

A Different Message

“Randolph told the people to `stand up for your rights. The white man won’t eat you. What are you afraid of?’,” Farmer said, a message “quite different from that of Dr. King, who said, `though you hit me, still I will love you’.”

Another person interviewed for the film was William Harris, president of Alabama State University and author of “Keeping the Faith,” a book about Randolph, his colleague Milton Webster and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Harris, who acted as a consultant for the film, said that it will be “important because A. Philip Randolph and his life, as part of the fabric of America from 1925-1975, was remarkable.”

For the decade from 1935 to 1945, Harris said, Randolph might have been “the best-known Black man in America. He was, as [some] might say, `The Man.'”

But, Harris said, Randolph was never a part of the television era, as was Dr. King, and so his memory has not been as well-maintained.

Harris hopes that the new film, which he said is “extremely well done,” will help go some way toward bringing Randolph back into prominence. Part of the reason that is important, he said, is because young people should realize that the civil rights movement was “more than a one-person deal.”

John Bracey, professor of African-American history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a consultant to the filmmakers, said, “The film fills in the blanks. People who think they know about him will learn something, and people who never heard of him will be pleasantly surprised.”

RELATED ARTICLE: A Life of Direct Action & Non-violent Confrontation

According to close colleagues, A. Philip Randolph often told about an event in his childhood that had a great effect on him. The story was that a rumor went through his small Florida community that a Black man, held in jail, would be lynched that night. Before dark the Black men of the town ringed the jail, standing all night to protect the prisoner and thereby prevent the lynching.

The story spoke to the importance of united effort, direct action and non-violent confrontation, all of which would mark the rest of Randolph’s life.

Randolph, born in 1889 was the son of an African Methodist Episcopalian minister who encouraged him to read at every opportunity. Disappointing his father, who had hoped he would become a minister, Randolph moved to Harlem in 1911. He worked in a series of manual jobs while taking classes at City University, where he was first introduced to the ideas of democratic socialism that shaped his political thinking.

He soon joined the Socialist Party and began “haranguing,” as he referred to it. from soap boxes on Harlem street corners. honing an electric speaking style.

During this time he met his future wife, Lucille Green, a 31-year-old widow from Christianburg, VA. Green had left her teaching career when her husband died and founded her own business, a successful Harlem beauty salon. She supported his work until her death in 1963, a few months before the March on Washington. She and Randolph were often described as “devoted to each other.”

In 1917, Randolph and a friend, Chandler Owen, founded the “Messenger,” a radical magazine. Their opposition to World War I, a position held by the Socialist Party, was widely criticized and caused the U.S. Attorney General to label Randolph and Owen as “the most dangerous Negroes in the United States.”

Making History

Having become well known as a writer, editor and speaker, Randolph was the man the Pullman sleeping car porters turned to when they began to form their union. George Pullman had a policy of hiring college-educated Black men to work as porters on his railroad sleeping cars and, since there were few other occupational options, they took the jobs, and worked long hours for low pay.

The porters felt they needed a union leader who was not one of them, because a fellow worker could be fired or retaliated against by the company. Although initially reluctant, Randolph agreed and spent the next twelve years working to organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in spite of the company’s use of spies and hired goons to prevent the union’s formation.

Roger Wilkins recently told a story that he said his uncle, long-time head of the NAACP Roy Wilkins, used to tell about Randolph at this time of his life.

During the campaign to organize, George Pullman called Randolph into his office. “He offered him $10,000 if he would stop,” Wilkins recounted. “Randolph turned him down. He called him in a second time and offered him $20,000 if he would stop. Again Randolph turned him down. He called him in a third time and gave him a blank check and told him to fill in the amount. He turned him down.”

Finally, when Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation required Pullman to negotiate, a contract was agreed to in 1937.

The Brotherhood received its charter from the American Federation of Labor in 1936, an affiliation which Randolph would use through the years as his wedge to compel the labor movement to integrate, an action he felt was crucial for all workers, Black and white. Year after year he spoke to the AF of L conventions demanding that Blacks be included in what he called the “House of Labor,” a demand that was eventually met.

Conceiving the March

Even before he was fully successful in that effort, however, he used his position as the most prominent Black labor leader to ensure that Blacks would have jobs. Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program with Great Britain started the vast wartime machinery that would eventually end the Depression and allow the United States to defeat the Axis Powers in World War II was beginning to gear up. White workers were flocking to factories for good, well-paid, often unionized, jobs building ships and making guns to send to England. Often the only jobs open to Blacks, however, were janitorial jobs.

Randolph conceived of a march where he would bring “10,000 Negroes” to Washington to demand equal treatment. This idea threw officialdom into a panic, including the more mainstream Black organizations, who asked him not to go through with such a scheme. All the importunings only caused Randolph to increase the number of people he predicted would come. By the time Eleanor Roosevelt pleaded with him to call off the march, citing, among other things, the fact that in segregated Washington there would not be enough places to eat or toilets to use, he was calling for 100,000 Blacks to participate. Buses were hired, speeches were made and a group of young militants, including Bayard Rustin, worked day and night to organize the march.

Only when Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 ordering the integration of the defense industry — and only after the executive order had in place the enforcement mechanisms demanded by Randolph — did Randolph called off the march.

For the first time, because of federal jobs, a substantial Black middle class could begin to develop.

Later in the decade Randolph confronted President Harry S. Truman, demanding that the armed services be integrated. He called for a massive non-compliance movement among Black men. In 1948 Truman also relented, signing an executive order ordering the integration of the armed services and thus laying the groundwork for another bastion of the Black middle class, the military.

Randolph never forgot the idea of a mass march on Washington and he revived it late in 1963.

The time was ripe. Demonstrations throughout the South had focused the nation’s attention on the brutality of segregation. The Freedom Riders, riding interstate buses through the South, had been assaulted viciously, and teenage demonstrators had been set upon by police dogs and fire hoses. Martin Luther King Jr., building on the successes of the bus boycott in Montgomery, AL, was leading the fight to desegregate public places in Birmingham, AL — nicknamed “Bombingham” because of the many firebomings by racist whites of Black homes and churches.

`A New Beginning’

Randolph called together the leaders of the major civil rights groups — known as the Big Six — and convinced them that a march on Washington was the right tactic for the moment. At that time, Randolph was 74, too old to personally organize the march, but he convinced the other leaders to allow him to appoint his protegee, Bayard Rustin, as organizer. Rustin’s assiduous attention to detail meant that the march succeeded beyond anyone’s realistic expectations.

Today, marches on Washington occur with some regularity. But the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom was unprecedented. Never before had so many people come together peacefully to petition their government.

Randolph’s speech that day was eclipsed in the public imagination by that of Dr. King. But some who heard it consider it just as important. In it, he said:

“Let the nation and the world know the meaning of our numbers. We are not a pressure group. We are not an organization or a group of organizations. We are not a mob. We are the advance guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom ….

“Those who deplore our militancy, who exhort patience in the name of a false peace, are, in fact, supporting segregation and exploitation. They would have social peace at the expense of social and racial justice. They are more concerned with easing racial tensions than enforcing racial democracy. The months and years ahead will bring new evidence of masses in motion for freedom. The March on Washington is not the climax of our struggle but a new beginning, not only for the Negro but for all Americans who thirst for freedom and a better life.”

John Lewis, who was then the young leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and is now a Democratic congressman from Georgia, appears in the new film about Randolph to say, “If he had been born in another period, maybe of another color, he probably would have been President. In another land he probably would have been, maybe, Prime Minister …. But in a real sense, he was head of the building of a new nation, of a better America.”

Note: Many of Randolph’s papers, as well as those of his close associate Bayard Rustin and of Randolph’s union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, are now available on microfilm from University Publications of America.

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COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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