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Thursday, September 5, 2013

A. Philip Randolph: The Man Behind the March

One of the sad things about American history is how men like A. Philip Randolph are erased from it. Recently Michael Eric Dyson reminded me via C-SPAN's Washington Journal that Randolph was the man behind the 1963 March on Washington, D.C., where Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his stirring “I Have a Dream” speech.

Randolph had been trying to organize a civil rights march on Washington since the 1940s. He was a dedicated labor leader—a true labor leader, who looked out for the members of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters first, while outsiders with other interests were viewed with caution at best. His great works mostly came before the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, though he did not get his first labor agreement inked until 1937.

In those years, the decade or so before the United States entered World War II, Randolph had the distinction of being skewered by the Communists not once, but twice:

He was attacked by the Communists as a traitor because he refused to support a stand against aid to the enemies of Hitler at the time of the Nazi-Soviet Russia pact. But when the Germans turned around and invaded Russia, he was again attacked by the Communist, this time for refusing to help the Soviet Union.

Yes, he was a socialist of sorts, in that group-bargaining sort of way where everybody is dealing with everybody else in a voluntary exchange. Today when one hears “1930s socialist” they think, usually correctly, of some Soviet connection, but that doesn’t describe Randolph, not by a long shot. He ran for office as a member of the Socialist party, but he always shunned Communists. Perhaps that is why he is not spoken of much by today’s collectivists. He was drafted as president of the National Negro Congress in 1936, but when they joined with the Communist-controlled Congress Industry Organization, he resigned. 

Much hay is made about Randolph's association with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. There may be something to this, but FDR did not seem to do anything Randolph suggested unless some element of embarrassment to the President loomed in the background. Randolph was full of very good ideas, like trying to get FDR to lift the ban on black workers in the defense industry. Randolph organized a march to the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C., in support of this idea. Before its scheduled date in 1941, FDR signed executive order 8802, lifting the ban on black workers in the civilian side of the defense industry. Desegregation of the uniformed side of anything in defense would have to wait for Colonel Barry Goldwater's formation of a desegregated Arizona Air National Guard.

While touring the spanking new Pentagon building in 1941, Randolph was one of FDR's guests, inspecting the space before occupancy. The display of “White Only” over half of the bathrooms was an apparent embarrassment to the President in front of his black guest, and he ordered the signs removed. However, FDR never ordered desegregation of the military, nor actual desegregation of the Pentagon bathrooms. White bathrooms had white water fountains at the entrance—and “Colored” bathrooms had dark colored water fountains—well into the Truman administration.

Today, the Office of the Secretary of Defense blames this bathroom situation on the State of Virginia. FDR was not known for respecting any authority other than his own, and I don't know of any other instances where he knuckled under to State laws for federal reservations. Of course, if those State laws happened to match his own biases, then there was no reason to step on the locals. Also, FDR did not desegregate the Pentagon dining facilities. Perhaps there were some things that were beyond embarrassment to the founder of the March of Dimes.

Oh, and Randolph has the distinction of being the first person known to have been clandestinely recorded in the Oval Office. He was recorded by none other than FDR on September 27, 1940.

Oddly, when one tries to find information on A. Philip Randolph today, he is championed as a socialist as in “Red-Star leader,” rather than a socialist as in “get paid the same wage for the same job as that white guy” leader.

  • Steve Esposito is a former defense contractor and 30-year veteran of the U.S. Army National Guard and Reserve (Aviation). A reformed Chicago School aficionado, he now embraces the “hard core” Austrian School. He currently lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with his second wife. He can be reached through Twitter @AustrianAnarchy and via email at [email protected].