Study Guide

A. Philip Randolph in I Have a Dream

By Martin Luther King, Jr.

A. Philip Randolph

Socialist Activist Fantastivist

A. Philip Randolph is a name that you probably aren't super aware of—but you really, really should be. Because this dude was so far ahead of his time that we're surprised he wasn't coming up with an iPhone prototype in the mid-1960s. Though the Civil Rights Movement didn't really kick off until the late '50s, Randolph was an activist for African American rights from 1917 until his death in 1979.

Yeah—this guy was forty years ahead of the curve.

He started out as a labor organizer and journalist…because he was just social-justice oriented like that. In 1917, when populism and labor movements were running high in the U.S., he founded a socialist-leaning magazine. For the record, socialism is a political system where laborers and workers run the economy and the government.

Socialism (and its stepbrother, communism) has often aroused suspicion from U.S. citizens and politicians. Due to America's affection for property rights and individualism, Americans tend to get nervous about the idea of giving up the fruits of their own labor to the overall group.

Randolph's association with this thick swamp of political philosophy is one of the reasons the FBI feared that civil rights leaders might be secret Communists. (Source)

The Dream Team

During the Civil Rights Movement, Randolph was best known as a member of the "Big Six," which was sort of like the starting lineup of the Civil Rights Movement's leaders. These guys came together to organize the March on Washington and form a kind of racial Justice League.

  •  John Lewis—Director of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee
  • Whitney Young—Director of the National Urban League
  • A. Philip Randolph—President of the N**** American Labor Council
  • James L. Farmer—Director, Congress of Racial Equality
  • Roy Wilkins—Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.—President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

These gentlemen presided over the largest organizations dedicated to fighting discrimination, each with a different area of focus. Randolph ended up being named the director of the March on Washington. (MLK was probably named Chief Inspiration Officer.)

For Randolph, labor rights and African American rights were part of the same (desired) revolution. He was a professed socialist throughout his adult life. In 1959 he founded the N**** American Labor Council, demonstrating his dual advocacy for civil rights and labor rights…because coordinated action was part of the reason the Civil Rights Movement achieved the success it did. If you want to go protest something, you can't just do it willy-nilly. (Well you could…you just might not get very far alone.) (Source)

The Old School

While other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, like MLK and John Lewis, were young men, Randolph had been organizing protests going back to the 1940s. In 1941, he led his own march on Washington to protest discriminatory work policies in government bureaus, and defense in particular. (Source) This was a precursor to the 1963 march. (As far as sequels go, the 1963 version was in Empire Strikes Back territory—even better than the first.)

Randolph's experience organizing for labor protests contributed to the huge crowd that showed up at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—200,000 people. To put that in perspective, that's more people than lived in Little Rock, Arkansas in 2015. (Source)

Despite suspicions over his socialist background, Randolph was one of a few leaders to meet with President Kennedy after the March on Washington. Along with Martin Luther King, Jr., he encouraged the president to push a civil rights bill through Congress. Kennedy would end up advocating such a bill, which eventually got passed as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But hey: what do you expect from a guy who was woke when it came to effecting civil rights-related change several decades before most people?