Though it won't get the attention it deserves, today marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of one of the great humanists of the twentieth century. If you’ve never heard of A. Philip Randolph, you’ve felt his impact on American society.
Long before Martin Luther King, Jr., rose to prominence in the civil rights movement, Randolph was making headway in the struggle against racial discrimination in American society. He led the March on Washington Movement, which pressured Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue an executive order banning discrimination in defense industries during the Second World War – a remarkable achievement in a country where segregation and racial prejudice were deeply ingrained. A few years later, the group under Randolph’s leadership succeeded in pressuring Harry Truman to issue yet another executive order, this time desegregating the armed forces.
Born April 15, 1889, Randolph became a civil rights leader through his work as a labor leader. He organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a primarily black labor union, in the 1920s, and stayed active in labor for the rest of his career.
It was Randolph who originated the March on Washington, which finally came to fruition in August 1963, as hundreds of thousands packed the National Mall in Washington. The event is famous for King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but it was Randolph who played the role of opening and closing speaker.
If the March on Washington was anyone’s dream, it was Randolph’s – he had envisioned it decades earlier, and even used the prospect of a march as a means of convincing two presidents to issue executive orders against discrimination. One can only imagine what he must have felt as he looked out on the crowd that day, seeing the awesome result of his commitment to justice and equality.
Importantly Randolph, whom King called "the Dean," was a humanist and a man of reason. He worked with King and certainly understood the power of the black churches, but his style was more intellectual than emotional. He received the American Humanist Association’s Humanist of the Year Award in 1970.