Cracking the Rock of Segregation

One man played a pivotal role in cracking the rock of segregation in the
20th century, clearing the way for African Americans to enter the
mainstream. That man was A. Philip Randolph and April 15, the last day of
the Passover holiday, was his birthday. There was silence about this event
— silence in the African American community and silence in the white
community. There was also silence in the Jewish community about this great
black leader who was an early supporter of Israel, the chairman of Black
Americans in Support of Israel Committee (BASIC) who fought vigorously
against racism and anti-Semitism. Since Randolph is one of the greatest
figures in the history of the civil rights movement — indeed the father of
the movement — it is imperative that we break that silence.

New York will give recognition to Randolph in 2003 when, in a long overdue
gesture, he will be honored with a 480-square-foot mural and a bust in the
new Penn Station. The facts of Randolph’s monumental achievements are
indisputable. But to this day, his contributions seem little known.

For 12 years, from 1925 to 1937, Randolph struggled to organize the first
black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. His adversary,
the Pullman Company, was a rich and ruthless corporation. It is a measure
of the conditions under which African Americans suffered that becoming a
porter was one of the few “respectable” jobs to which blacks could aspire
in the 1930s. Porters worked a minimum of 400 hours a month and endured
minimal wages and demeaning, emasculating working conditions. They were
kept awake for nights on end. When they slept, they were forced to lie
beside urinals and toilets in smoking rooms. The union finally won
recognition in 1937, creating a black-labor alliance that would have
historic consequences.

Randolph later organized the A. Philip Randolph Institute, now led by
Norman Hill. Its purpose is to give blacks a stronger voice in labor and to
spearhead the training of black leadership in unions. John J. Sweeney,
AFL-CIO President, said, “A. Philip Randolph helped to create a labor
movement that today is the largest, most integrated democratic institution
in America. He was one of the great labor leaders of the 20th century.”

When World War II began, the federal government was still segregated and
blacks held only menial defense jobs. Randolph called for a march on
Washington in protest. Under pressure, President Roosevelt issued Executive
Order 8802, which called for an end to discrimination in defense industries
and government. More than 1 million African Americans were added to the
work force. Then, in 1948, after black servicemen were faced with
discrimination and segregation while defending the United States in a
global war, Randolph called for another march on Washington to desegregate
the armed forces. As a result, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981
in May 1948, desegregating the armed forces.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Randolph was known as the “dean” of the civil rights
movement. His office in Harlem was a command post looked to for tactical
consultation by leaders of mass movements. In 1963 he called for a new
march on Washington for “jobs and freedom.” Randolph, who mentored Dr.
Martin Luther King Jr., was the only person able to unite the civil rights
leadership in the stormy ’60s, including King, Roy Wilkins, James Farmer,
Whitney Young and John Lewis. When 250,000 Americans marched on Washington,
it was the fulfillment of Randolph’s dream of a coalition of blacks and
whites, Christians and Jews, marching nonviolently for democratic change.
The march created the climate that led to the passage of the Civil Rights
Act of 1964, the most comprehensive civil rights legislation in this
country’s history.

Rep. John Lewis said of Randolph, “He stood at the pinnacle of leadership,
performing tasks that certainly no one else could do,…tasks that involved
putting coalitions together, challenging government, making demands and
standing firm until those demands were acceded to. If he had been born in
another period, maybe of another color, he probably would have been
president…but in a real sense he was the head of the building of a new
nation, a better America.”

Those who knew him refer to him still as the “gentle warrior.” Combined
with his tenacity and strength was a gentle, sensitive spirit and a courtly
presence.

During the 1960s, when the United Federation of Teachers was organizing
some 10,000 mostly black and Hispanic teaching assistants, a story Randolph
told cheered the union organizers. It was about a stonecutter who was
hammering away, trying to break a huge rock. The rock didn’t seem to budge.
He must have hit the rock 100 times, but he kept trying. Finally, the
stonecutter raised his heavy arm and on the 101st blow the rock shattered.
And the stonecutter knew that it was not the last blow that did it…it was
all that went on before. Such was Randolph’s example and inspiration.

During the height of Randolph’s leadership (1940-1963), America experienced
the beginning of a great period of social and political change. That period
was marked by a strong coalition between the Jewish- and African-American
communities. We need to revitalize that coalition to meet the challenges of
the 21st century.

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