Youth, Education, and Marriage
Asa Philip Randolph was born in Crescent City, Florida on April 15, 1889, to parents James William Randolph and Elizabeth Robinson. His father worked as a tailor and African Methodist Episcopal Church minister and his mother worked as a talented seamstress. The family relocated to a large, African-American community in Jacksonville, Florida in 1891.
Randolph learned to fight for social equality without fear through watching his parent’s brave efforts growing up.
Randolph’s parents taught him to stand up for his principles and that a person’s conduct and character are more important than their color. Randolph witnessed his father leave the house to prevent the lynching of a black man one night while his mother sat with a loaded shotgun facing the front door until he returned.
Randolph and his brother attended East Jacksonville’s Cookman Institute, the only Florida high school open to African-Americans, where they excelled academically. Randolph did well in public speaking, drama, and literature, played basketball, sang in the choir, and graduated valedictorian in 1907.
Finding work after graduation proved difficult for A. Philip Randolph in the Southern U.S. In 1911, he moved to New York City to work. He enrolled at City College to take social science classes. Randolph married Lucille Campbell Green, an entrepreneur, widow, and socialist, in 1913. They never produced any children.
A. Philip Randolph assisted in the creation of Harlem’s Shakespearean Society. He wanted to become an actor, but his parents did not approve. He also started exploring socialism. Randolph met and befriended Chandler Owen, a law student at Columbia University, and the pair combined the ideas of Lester Frank Wards with Marxist teachings to conclude that people gain freedom when not hindered by economic deprivation.
Randolph also developed the idea of collective action for African-Americans to obtain economic and legal equality. They opened an employment placement service to help train migrants from the South and connect them with trade unions. Randolph believed in immigration restriction, to decrease job competition for African-Americans.
Owen and Randolph founded the Messenger, a monthly, radical magazine, in 1917. The Socialist Party of America supported its creation and the magazine addressed issues like the fight to end segregation, lynchings, U.S. intervention in World War I, and urged African-Americans to join progressive unions and resist the draft. The Messenger also published works by black authors and poets.
The Messenger’s editorial staff faced conflicting opinions about whether to support the Back-to-Africa Movement by Marcus Garvey, the Bolshevik Revolution, and how to address the growing tensions between African-Americans and West Indians. By 1919, most of the leftist African-Americans joined the Socialist Party and the West Indians joined the Community Party. This left the magazine with tenuous support and it collapsed. He ran on the Socialist ticket twice, 1920 and 1922, but failed to succeed.
The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
In 1917, Asa Philip Randolph organized an elevator operators union in New York City. By 1919, he became the National Brotherhood of Workers of America’s president. Members of the union included black dock and shipyard workers from Virginia’s Tidewater region. The American Federation of Labor forced the union’s end in 1921.
In 1925, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) elected Randolph president. Many of the unions mostly African-American members were employed by the Pullman Company, a railroad building company that offered African-Americans decent employment. Since they did not belong to a union, however, the company still provided meager wages and poor working conditions.
Asa Philip Randolph continued to fight for civil and labor rights even when all hope seemed to be lost.
The BSCP enrolled 51% of local sleeping car porters within a year and Pullman reacted negatively, firing employees and inciting violence. Randolph planned to host a strike of the porters in 1928 when the Watson-Parker Railway Labor Act failed to win the workers’ mediation rights. Rumors started that the company put 5,000 workers on hold to replacing the striking porters should they choose to strike and it was canceled. By 1933, the BSCP only had 658 members and could not afford to keep the telephone or electricity connected at their headquarters.
In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected U.S. President and he sympathized greatly with workers unions. The 1934 Railway Labor Act passed and gave porters federal rights. The BSCP members increased to over 7,000 and the Pullman Company began negotiating with the union in 1935. In 1937, the two agreed on a contract that included a shorter work week, overtime pay, and $2 million in pay increases. He continued to work with the BSCP through the merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1955.
Civil Rights Activism
In 1941, A.J Muste, Bayard Washington, and Asa Philip Randolph proposed a march to Washington in protest of war industries’ racial discrimination and segregation in the Armed forces while proposing legal defenses for employment, and anti-lynching laws. Randolph and the others stated 50,000 African-Americans would descend on Washington if their demands were not met. They canceled the march when U.S. President FDR issued the Fair Employment Act, which banned racial discrimination in war industries, but not the armed forces.
The passage of the Act meant the government supported striking by black workers to gain access to jobs previously only open to white candidates. Randolph and Grant Reynolds renewed the fight to integrate the armed forces in 1947 with this knowledge. They formed the Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service, later the League for Non-Violent Civil Disobedience. The Committee influenced U.S. President Harry S. Truman’s decision to withdraw the proposal of a peacetime draft law. President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, ending racial segregation of the U.S. armed forces.
A. Philip Randolph co-founded the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, still a powerful civil rights coalition today, with Roy Wilkins and Arnold Aronson in 1950. Randolph also formed a close bond with Martin Luther King, Jr., organizing the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom with him in 1957, and Youth Marches for Integrated Schools in 1958/59.
On August 29, 1963, Randolph finally organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This brought 200,000-300,000 people to Washington, D.C. in support of civil rights. 
Death of A. Philip Randolph
Asa Philip Randolph died on May 16, 1979, in Manhattan, New York. His body was cremated and his ashes placed in an urn. The urn rests at the A. Philip Randolph Institute’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.
ANB. (2000). Asa Philip Randolph. American National Biography Online.
Pfeffer, P. F. (1996). A. Philip Randolph, Pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
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- Barrett, W. L. (2002, January 28). Asa Philip Randolph (1889 - 1979). Find A Grave Memorial.