A. Philip Randolph Was Once “the Most Dangerous Negro in America”

The organizer of the March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech was also the leader of the first successful black labor union. For A. Philip Randolph, labor and civil rights were one and the same.

A. Phillip Randolph, socialist, labor organizer, and civil rights leader, speaks at the Fair Employment Practices Committee Day Rally at Madison Square Garden, February 28, 1946. (Bettmann Archive via Getty Images)

A. Philip Randolph, the influential twentieth-century labor and civil rights leader, would no doubt have mixed feelings about the state of labor in the United States today. On the one hand, union density has declined precipitously over the last half-century, from roughly one-third to one-tenth of all workers. On the other hand, there’s been an upsurge of union organizing in recent years, particularly among black and brown workers.

As the leader of the first successful black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Randolph was committed to organizing black workers, particularly at a time when many unions excluded African Americans. By the 1960s, most unions had welcomed black workers into their ranks, although it took a few more decades for these workers to rise into positions of union leadership. Today, black workers have the highest unionization rates — 12.8 percent, compared with 11.2 percent for white workers, 10 percent for Latino workers, and 9.2 percent for Asian-American workers.

A new report shows that the number of American workers represented by a union increased by two hundred thousand, to a total of more than sixteen million, between 2021 and 2022. The entire increase was among workers of color. No, that’s not an exaggeration. The number of black workers represented by a union increased by 142,000, Latino workers by 101,000, and Asian-American workers by 64,000. Meanwhile, the number of unionized white workers declined by 31,000.

Because nonunion jobs grew at a faster rate than union jobs, however, the share of workers represented by a union declined from 11.6 percent in 2021 to 11.3 percent in 2022 — continuing a decades-long trend of declining union density. Whatever the gains among black and brown workers, Randolph would be dismayed by this development, believing as he did that a strong multiracial labor movement was a bulwark of democracy, a protector of human rights, and an antidote to racism. As he wrote in a March 1919 editorial in his radical magazine the Messenger:

The history of the labor movement in America proves that the employing classes recognize no race lines. They will exploit a white man as readily as a black man. They will exploit any race or class in order to make profits. The combination of black and white workers will be a powerful lesson to the capitalists of the solidarity of labor.

It was this advocacy of a multiracial labor movement united against the elite few that made Randolph the “most dangerous Negro in America,” and which necessitates preserving his legacy today.

Auspicious Beginnings

Schools in New York City, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Jacksonville, Florida are named in Randolph’s honor, but it is unlikely that their students know much, if anything, about him. Nor is it likely that people walking through A. Philip Randolph Square in Harlem or A. Philip Randolph Heritage Park in Jacksonville, or people passing by the five-foot bronze statue of Randolph at Boston’s Back Bay train station or the statue of him in the concourse of Union Station in Washington, DC, could identify who he was or what he accomplished.

That’s unfortunate, because Randolph was an inspiring presence throughout the twentieth century. He built bridges between black and white workers, and between the labor and civil rights movements. He recognized that unions played a key role in channeling white workers’ frustrations and anger toward corporate America rather than scapegoating black workers — a much-needed lesson in this age of Trump-ignited racism among many white Americans.

The son of an ordained minister and a seamstress, Randolph grew up in Jacksonville. An outstanding student, he attended the Cookman Institute, the only academic high school in Florida for African Americans. There he excelled in literature, drama, and public speaking; starred on the baseball team; sang solos with its choir; and was valedictorian of his graduating class of 1907.

In 1911 Randolph moved to Harlem, the cultural, political, and economic capital of black America. He worked menial jobs while taking night courses in English literature and sociology at City College and participating in the radical intellectual and political ferment of the times. He was drawn to socialism and to acting. He helped organize Harlem’s Shakespearean Society and played the roles of Hamlet, Othello, and Romeo. He gave up his ambition to become a professional actor, but he fused his talents for acting and organizing by becoming a socialist soapbox orator on the streets of Harlem.

He met Chandler Owen, a law student at Columbia University, and they formed a number of short-lived political, community, and labor groups. One was the Brotherhood of Labor, an employment agency in Harlem, which they hoped would catalyze union organizing among black workers, but it went nowhere.

In 1917 Randolph and Chandler started the Messenger, which they called “the only magazine of scientific radicalism in the world published by Negroes.” The monthly publication mixed politics and culture. It promoted the Harlem Renaissance, crusaded against lynching and US involvement in World War I, and encouraged black Americans to join unions and embrace socialism.

Also in 1917 Randolph organized a union of elevator operators and two years later became president of the National Brotherhood of Workers of America, which organized black shipyard workers in Virginia. But in 1921, the white-dominated American Federation of Labor (AFL) undermined Randolph’s efforts and the union fell apart.

Randolph criticized the prominent black intellectual-activist W. E. B. Du Bois’s focus on organizing the “talented tenth” of African Americans rather than building a mass movement that included black workers and farmers. Randolph’s efforts to that movement were not restricted to unions; he was also active in the Socialist Party and even ran for office. Randolph led the Harlem wing of Morris Hillquit’s 1917 Socialist campaign for New York City mayor. Three years later, the Socialist Party nominated Randolph himself for New York State Comptroller. He didn’t win, but he garnered 202,361 votes — only one thousand less than Eugene Debs, the party’s presidential candidate.

Through his magazine, speeches, and political campaigns, Randolph made a name for himself. But not all who knew of his activism were fans: in 1919, A. Mitchell Palmer, President Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general who was responsible for the anti-socialist Palmer Raids during the First Red Scare, labeled Randolph the “most dangerous Negro in America.” In the heat of World War I, Palmer had Randolph arrested for treason for his antiwar views; he spent two days in jail but was not prosecuted.

At the time, Randolph had done little to earn Palmer’s label, but that would change.

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

In 1925 a group of black porters for the Pullman Company came to Randolph for help organizing for better wages and working conditions. The company hired black men as porters — waiters and luggage handlers — on its sleeping cars, a form of luxury travel. At its peak, the Pullman Company was the largest single employer of black men in the United States, employing twelve thousand.

Being a Pullman porter was among the best-paid jobs available to black men, and as a bonus it offered the opportunity to travel around the country. But working conditions were onerous. Porters worked as many as eighty to one hundred hours a week. They were not paid for overnight layovers and were excluded from the better jobs, such as conductor, which were reserved for whites. They relied on tips for most of their income, which meant they had to endure the racist insults and rudeness of white passengers, including the indignity of being called “George” (the name of the company founder George Pullman) rather than by their own names.

The company was politically well connected, as Eugene Debs had learned the hard way in 1894, when he led a strike of railway workers that was crushed by federal and state troops. Soon after Randolph and others announced the formation of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), the company fired union members, threatened workers with tougher or fewer assignments if they showed any pro-union sentiments, and branded Randolph as a Bolshevik.

Randolph worked tirelessly to organize workers and combat the company’s union busting, traveling across the country, meeting with porters, and trying to keep the organization together with limited funds and outside support. The Messenger became the union’s official publication, but Randolph also generated publicity for the union in black newspapers and in some radical publications. Randolph became the public face of the organization, drawing on a core of activist porters as his key organizers, as depicted in the 2002 film, “10,000 Men Named George,” starring Andre Braugher as Randolph.

The porters admired Randolph’s hard work and integrity, but for almost ten years the BSCP had little to show for Randolph’s efforts. The New Deal changed the odds. Amendments to the Railway Labor Act in 1934 gave railroad workers the right to unionize. The next year, Randolph persuaded a vast majority of porters to endorse the BSCP as their collective voice in negotiations with Pullman. That year, the AFL voted to grant an international charter to the BSCP. After two more years of difficult negotiations, the Pullman Company finally signed a contract with the BSCP in1937, a major milestone.

Randolph’s goal was not simply to build a union of porters but, rather, to promote the idea of trade unionism to skeptical black workers. He also sought to persuade the white labor leadership that black workers deserved their support and should be part of union drives in every industry in which they toiled. Randolph later recalled:

There was no other group of Negroes in America who constituted the key to unlocking the door of a nationwide struggle for Negro rights as the porters. Without the porters I couldn’t have carried on the fight for fair employment, or the fight against discrimination in the armed forces.

Desegregating the Military

Randolph’s national stature as a black leader was further enhanced in 1936 when he was drafted to serve as president of a new organization, the National Negro Congress (NNC), made up of about two hundred black groups. Its goal was to build a mass movement of blacks, mostly by working through labor unions but also by promoting civil rights.

Several key Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) unions backed the new organization, and the NNC provided support for several union campaigns, encouraging black workers to join the industrial union movement. But Randolph soon realized that many of NNC’s key union supporters were Communists who expected the NNC to support Communist Party positions on foreign policy matters — including unquestioning support of the Soviet Union, of which Randolph was critical. Randolph had been outmaneuvered. In 1940 Randolph resigned from the NNC but kept his position with the BSCP.

By then Randolph was an important figure in the black community. Still a socialist, still dedicated to the labor movement, and still a crusader for civil rights, Randolph embarked on what some friends told him was an impossible task: to get the president to end racial discrimination in the defense industry and desegregate the US military.

The boom in defense spending in anticipation of US entry into World War II created good jobs for white workers but not for blacks. In 1940, only 240 out of 107,000 workers in the aircraft industry were black. Even where they were hired, they were consigned to the worst jobs.

Similarly, there were only 4,700 blacks among the US Army’s half a million soldiers. Only one of the Army’s four Negro units was being trained for combat. There were no blacks in the US Marines, the Tank Corps, the Signal Corps, or the Army Air Corps. Blacks were often trained in segregated camps and were almost always assigned support duties — digging ditches, building roads, cooking and serving meals. Even the Red Cross blood supply was segregated.

After hearing Randolph speak about these issues, Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for Randolph, Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and T. Arnold Hill of the Urban League to meet with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on September 27, 1940. Roosevelt listened but did not make any promises. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox argued that white sailors would never accept blacks as equals on the same ship. Roosevelt’s chief military and cabinet advisers opposed integration.

Angered by Roosevelt’s indifference, Randolph formulated a plan and came up with a slogan: “We loyal Negro Americans demand the right to work and fight for our country.” He set up a National March on Washington Committee. He enlisted the NAACP, the Urban League, the porters, and black newspapers to spread the word. They set a date for the march: July 1, 1941.

Roosevelt was informed about the proposed march but refused to schedule another meeting with Randolph to discuss it. Randolph kept the heat on, writing Roosevelt letters demanding a meeting. At that point, Roosevelt asked Eleanor to contact her friend Randolph and ask him to cancel the march. Randolph refused, and Roosevelt eventually agreed to another meeting.

On June 18, 1941, Randolph and White sat down with Roosevelt at the White House. They reminded the president that the nation was gearing up for World War II, but that African Americans were consistently being excluded from well-paying jobs with private defense contractors. The two civil rights leaders wanted the commander in chief to open up defense employment to blacks. If not, the march was on. Randolph looked Roosevelt in the eye and told him, “Time is running out. We want something concrete, something tangible, positive and affirmative.”

“How many people do you plan to bring?” Roosevelt asked him. “One hundred thousand, Mr. President,” Randolph responded. This figure staggered and frightened the president. Roosevelt then turned to White. “Walter, how many people will really march?” Roosevelt asked. “One hundred thousand, Mr. President,” White said without hesitation.

Roosevelt relented. A week later, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, which Randolph had helped draft. It stated, “There shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin.” The order also created a Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to investigate reports of discrimination. Randolph called off the march. The headline in the New York Times on June 26, 1941 read: “President Orders An Even Break for Minorities in Defense Jobs.”

Randolph may have been bluffing. Could he have pulled off the threatened march of one hundred thousand African Americans? It’s not certain, but if anyone in America could have, it would have been Randolph, and that is what Roosevelt feared. At the time, Randolph was the most effective African-American organizer in the country. He was a powerful voice for civil rights and had important allies among liberals, progressives, and radicals.

The FEPC did not live up to Randolph’s expectations. Discrimination in wages and seniority persisted in the defense industry. The armed services remained segregated. As blacks migrated to northern cities to take the worst jobs in the defense plants, they encountered racism from whites at work and in the housing market. Nevertheless, weak though it was, the FEPC marked the beginning of federal efforts to end racial discrimination in employment. Future efforts would build on this foundation.

Although Roosevelt had promised much more than he delivered, Randolph — and the American left — had learned valuable lessons about power and about organizing. Whether or not he was bluffing, Randolph faced down the president with the threat of mass movement, and Roosevelt reluctantly agreed to Randolph’s demands.

In 1948 Randolph not only again threatened mass protest if President Harry S. Truman failed to order an end to segregation in the military, but this time he also urged black men to resist the draft until the president relented. He led pickets at that year’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia to embarrass Truman. Truman was furious, but that July he signed an executive order to integrate the armed forces and federal civil service jobs.

Forefather of the Civil Rights Movement

Throughout the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, Randolph kept pushing on both the labor and civil rights fronts. He traveled around the country, speaking at college campuses, union halls, churches, and street meetings, building support for a society that could provide decent jobs and equal treatment for all Americans.

His protégés played key roles in challenging America’s economic class and racial caste system. In 1941, Randolph hired twenty-nine-year-old Bayard Rustin to lead the youth wing of the March on Washington movement. Rustin was disappointed when Randolph called off the threatened march, concerned that it would take years for Roosevelt’s order to be enforced. But working with Randolph, Rustin learned tools that he would employ for the next three decades as a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr and an influential advocate of nonviolent civil disobedience.

In 1945, Randolph spoke at Morehouse College, where King was a freshman. Randolph predicted that the near future would witness a global struggle that would end white supremacy and capitalism. He urged the students to link up with “the people in the shacks and the hovels,” who, although “poor in property,” were “rich in spirit.” It was an eye-opening moment for the sixteen-year old King.

In 1955, after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to move to the black section of a segregated bus in Montgomery, one of Randolph’s protégés — E. D. Nixon, a leader of the BSCP, the head of the Alabama NAACP, and the president of the Montgomery Voters League — became the key behind-the-scenes organizer of the Montgomery bus boycott. Parks had worked as Nixon’s assistant in the local NAACP office and was well known and respected in the black community, which made her arrest the perfect catalyst for the boycott. Nixon recruited the twenty-six-year-old King — then a newly arrived minister in town — to become the boycott’s public face.

That year, Randolph became a vice president of the AFL-CIO’s Executive Council, and in 1959 he helped found the Negro American Labor Council. For the next several years, he endeavored to foster the burgeoning civil rights movement and link it with the labor movement.

In 1963 the movement was gathering momentum, but the various civil rights organizations competed for attention and funding. Randolph pulled them together — along with the leaders of major labor, liberal, and religious organizations — and laid out his idea for a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march would push for federal legislation, including an increase in the minimum wage and the Civil Rights Act, which President John F. Kennedy had proposed but which was stalled in Congress. Kennedy tried to dissuade the leaders from sponsoring the march, contending that it would undermine support for the legislation. But Randolph had faced down presidents before, and he did so again.

Randolph hired Rustin to serve as the march’s day-to-day organizer. Some civil rights leaders objected because Rustin was gay, fearing that his involvement would discredit the civil rights movement, but Randolph would not back down, insisting that it had to be Rustin. Thus appointed, Rustin pulled together a staff and organized all the logistics.

The August 28, 1963 march attracted over 250,000 participants — the largest protest march in American history at the time. The march is best known as the setting of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but it was Randolph who gave the first oration at the Lincoln Memorial that included this message:

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 advanced guard of a massive, moral revolution for jobs and freedom. . . .

But this civil rights revolution is not confined to the Negro, nor is it confined to civil rights, for our white allies know that they cannot be free while we are not. And we know that we have no future in a society in which six million black and white people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty. . . .

We want a free, democratic society dedicated to the political, economic and social advancement of man along moral lines. . . . We know that real freedom will require many changes in the nation’s political and social philosophies and institutions. For one thing we must destroy the notion that Mrs. Murphy’s property rights include the right to humiliate me because of the color of my skin. The sanctity of private property takes second place to the sanctity of the human personality. . . .

The plain and simple fact is that until we went into the streets the federal government was indifferent to our demands. It was not until the streets and jails of Birmingham were filled that Congress began to think about civil rights legislation. It was not until thousands demonstrated in the South that lunch counters and other public accommodations were integrated.

A photograph of Randolph and Rustin at the Lincoln Memorial graced the cover of LIFE magazine’s September 6, 1963 issue.

The march — along with ongoing organizing efforts in Southern cities — paved the way for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the first major civil rights legislation bill since the Reconstruction era. That year, President Lyndon Johnson awarded Randolph the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his activist career.

But that didn’t stop Randolph from criticizing Johnson. In the late 1960s, as Johnson’s Great Society anti-poverty programs stalled because of the rising cost of the Vietnam War, Randolph led a coalition of progressives to propose a Freedom Budget for the nation, calling for spending $185 billion ($1.6 trillion in today’s dollars) over ten years to fight poverty.

The proposal was cowritten with Rustin, with the forward written by King. In a clear testament to Randolph’s ideological influence, King wrote:

We shall eliminate slums for Negroes when we destroy ghettos and build new cities for all. We shall eliminate unemployment for Negroes when we demand full and fair employment for all. We shall produce an educated and skilled Negro mass when we achieve a twentieth century education system for all.

Randolph retired in 1968 and lived quietly in New York City. His health deteriorated, and he died at the age of 90 in 1979.

Randolph never gave up his socialist belief that unions and their members, regardless of race, are key to the struggle to redistribute society’s wealth, provide good jobs for all, and create a more democratic society. And he persisted in his belief that strategic mass action by a coalition of liberal, progressive, and radical forces is central to making America live up to its ideals.

The millions of people who benefit today from his contributions to the civil rights and labor movements should know his name.