A. Philip Randolph

Bayard Rustin

In my fifty years as a social and human rights activist, I have met and worked with some of the leading figures in the struggle for justice—Gandhi, Norman Thomas, Martin Luther King, Jr., Lech Walesa. But the man who most closely touched my life, whose ideas, character, and work helped shape my destiny, was Asa Philip Randolph, this country’s premier black labor and civil rights leader. I have chosen to write about Mr. Randolph for two reasons. First, our association was a long and fruitful one. I had the privilege and good fortune of working with Mr. Randolph from about 1939 until his death in 1979 at the age of ninety. Second, though much heralded in his time, Mr. Randolph and his ground-breaking achievements in the struggle for racial and economic equality have been obscured by the passage of time. This was a man whom every major civil rights leader, from Roy Wilkins to Martin Luther King, affectionately and respectfully called “the Chief.”

Mr. Randolph was, in the truest sense of the word, a pathfinder. Tall, aristocratic, with just a touch of vanity about his appearance, he was an intellectual imbued with unflappable dignity and courage, who used his outward reserve and quiet demeanor as a potent weapon in the formative years of the civil rights struggle. As a member of the Socialist Party, he ran for New York Secretary of State in 1922 and received an impressive two hundred thousand votes. Three years later, he organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. In subsequent years, he tangled with corporate executives, presidents, and this country’s most powerful labor leaders, and more often than not, his dignity and steadfastness won concessions that paved the way for black social, economic, and political advancement.

Confronted with the humiliations of racism, insults, and resistance, he never lost his poise, and he never lost his nerve. He was imperturbable and implacable in his single-minded commitment to his ideals and principles. He was a self-made gentleman and a prudent tactician with the grit and toughness of a boxer. Mr. Randolph was a man of quiet courage, of resoluteness without flashiness, of perseverance without pretension.

Many of these attributes were evident to me at our first meeting, which occurred in 1938 when I was a student at the City College of New York. I had shown a friend of mine a paper I had written in which I concluded that the Communists were the only party sensitive to the needs of blacks. Now this was the time of the Scottsboro trials, in which the Communists were actively involved. Well, my friend disagreed with my analysis, and asked me if I had ever met A. Philip Randolph, a socialist who was firmly anticommunist. Of course I had heard of Mr. Randolph, but never met him. After some discussion, my friend suggested that we arrange to visit Mr. Randolph at the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters headquarters up on 125th Street in Harlem. I was sure that a man of Randolph’s stature would not bother with two young and unknown college kids.

Much to my surprise, we got a call from Mr. Randolph’s secretary, who told us that he would see us. At that initial meeting, Randolph did three simple things that I saw him do countless times during our long association, and which illustrate the decorum and gentility that characterized his dealings with people and which, I feel, were a small but integral part of his successes.

When we arrived at Randolph’s modest offices for our appointment, it was clear that he was busy and running late. But rather than just keep us waiting, we heard him come over to the door and tell his secretary, loud enough for us to hear, “Tell the two gentlemen from City College that I will be a little late.” For years and years, when Mr. Randolph had to keep someone waiting, he would either send his secretary or come out in person and explain the delay. The courteousness and thoughtfulness made quite an impression on me.

The second thing that really impressed me happened as we were ushered into Mr. Randolph’s office. This important man, instead of sitting smugly behind his desk waiting to receive us, got out of his chair, walked toward us, and shook our hands. He then did something which seemed most unusual. As he showed us to two seats near his desk, he gestured with his hand for us to sit down, but not like most people do by merely pointing to the chair. He made a gesture as if he were brushing or dusting the seat before we sat down, something I also saw him do for years and years.

Although these displays of civility may seem like insignificant and even overly obsequious acts, they were not. I later realized that it was Randolph’s courtliness, his staid manners and reserve, that made it so extraordinarily difficult for opponents to dismiss him. In fact, his restrained manner was often totally disarming; it was a type of moral judo. that threw opponents, including presidents and other officials, off balance. Although these qualities were an innate part of his personality, they were also an effective tactic.

At that initial meeting, Randolph discussed his socialist beliefs, outlining his positions on child labor, the six-day work week, trade union rights, black economic progress, and other matters. I was awed by his eloquence, his equanimity, his bearing, and his grasp of the issues.

I was so taken with Mr. Randolph after that first meeting that a year later I went to work for him in his major campaign to organize a march on Washington to press for an executive order banning segregation in defense plants. During the planning stages of the effort I got to know Randolph better. And he told me a remarkable story of a negotiating meeting between the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the Pullman Company which further underscored his style and shrewdness.

He said: “I am prepared to oppose a Jim Crow army until I rot in jail.”

Although always mindful of his dignity and decorum, sometimes Randolph let other, more indelicate spokesmen take the floor when things got nasty or when blunt or indecorous language had to be used to make a point. In 1937, representatives of the Pullman Company sat down with leaders of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, some twelve years after the union was formed. Well, the company representatives were condescending and coarse. They freely used the terms nigger and darkie when referring to the porters. After several minutes of these insults, Mr. Randolph, never losing his composure and never mentioning their ill manners, responded with some brief comments and then turned to Milton Webster, the head of the Midwest region of the union, and said: “Mr. Webster, have you anything to say?” Now, Milton Webster was a huge, imposing man, who must have been about six feet five inches tall and weighed 260 pounds. He was a tough, no-nonsense man, known for his outspokenness and his temper. Webster lit into the Pullman executives, calling them every vile name under the sun, questioning their ancestry, and thundering that the porters didn’t have to put up with any crap from high-handed white bastards. Just as Webster was hitting his stride, Randolph quietly interrupted, and in his measured and aristocratic tone said, “Mr. Webster, if I may interrupt, I think we ought to proceed with the business at hand.” Randolph would never have personally cursed out the Pullman representatives, but by calling on Webster, he knew the company men would get the message, in no uncertain terms, that the porters were not to be patronized. The point made, the meeting proceeded without any more insults from the Pullman representatives. After a series of meetings, the Pullman Company signed a contract with the union, the first time a black union had won an agreement with a white company. Throughout the negotiations, Randolph maintained that air of measured restraint and ultimately won the day.

Randolph also used “deliberate” dignity—that is, dignity for a powerful purpose—in his campaign to end discrimination in the defense industry. Before Pearl Harbor, Randolph had been pressing Franklin Roosevelt to issue an executive order ending segregation in defense plants. When the president hedged, Randolph planned a march on Washington in 1941 to push his demands. At a meeting with Randolph, an exasperated FDR—who was not too eager to desegregate—complained that if a hundred thousand blacks came into Washington, which was a segregated city, there would be no place for them to eat, to sleep, to go to the toilet. After a brief pause, Randolph told the president that if people wanted to come to Washington he was in no position to stop them. Then, in a quiet, even voice, he told the president that if he was really so concerned about where the marchers would eat, sleep, or go to the toilet, he could, by merely picking up a pen, issue an executive order desegregating public accommodations in the entire city. Randolph spoke so quietly and matter-of-factly that it took a moment for the implications of his words to sink in, but when they did, Roosevelt’s cigarette-holder nearly fell from his mouth. Randolph had come to talk about desegregating defense plants, and here he was escalating his demands and talking about desegregating public facilities in the whole city. Six months before Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt signed a fair employment practices order which called for an end to discrimination in defense plant jobs. As a result, Randolph called off the march.

But he did not halt his efforts to end discrimination in the armed services, and this led to several clashes with President Truman and other politicians, notably Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon. And it also led to a serious clash between me and Mr. Randolph, the only one in the four decades of our collaboration.

In 1948, Mr. Randolph appointed me executive secretary of the League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation. I had served a three-year sentence in Lewisburg Penitentiary as a conscientious objector during World War II. On 22 March 1948, Randolph and a group of black leaders met with Truman, telling him that unless an executive order were issued barring segregation in the military, blacks would refuse to bear arms in defense of the country and would engage in other acts of civil disobedience. Truman, ever blunt, said he didn’t care to hear such talk, and simply adjourned the meeting. By this time, we had some fifty blacks in jail for evading the draft. Undeterred by Truman’s rebuff, Randolph went before the Senate Armed Services Committee, testifying that he would personally continue to advise blacks “to refuse to fight as slaves for a democracy they cannot possess and cannot enjoy.” This open defiance was too much even for Senator Morse, a liberal and one of Randolph’s admirers on the committee. He asked Randolph if he would continue to counsel disobedience and draft evasion even in the event of war. When Randolph said he would because such action was “in the interest of the soul of the country,” Morse shot back that such action would be construed by the government as treason. Unflustered, Randolph replied: “We would be willing to absorb the violence, absorb the terrorism, to face the music and to take whatever comes, and we, as a matter of fact, consider that we are more loyal to our country than the people who perpetrate segregation and discrimination upon Negroes because of color or race.”

Later that day, Randolph was more emphatic. Speaking to a group of young people at the March on Washington headquarters, he said: “I am prepared to oppose a Jim Crow army until I rot in jail.” What made Randolph’s position even more courageous was that there were large segments of the black leadership and media that opposed his stand. The influential Amsterdam News, the widely read New York paper considered the voice of the black community in America, was against him. Several prominent blacks wrote President Truman assuring him that Randolph spoke only for a small, militant minority of blacks. Even the Urban League had doubts about the wisdom of Randolph’s radical stand.

But as was usually the case, Randolph had accurately read the mood of the black people. A poll of young black men in Harlem showed that seventy-one percent favored a civil disobedience campaign against the draft. In July 1948, Randolph led a group of picketers at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Later that month, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981, calling for an end to military discrimination “as rapidly as possible.” After receiving confirmation from presidential advisors that the order did indeed ban segregation, Randolph called off the civil disobedience campaign and moved to disband the League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience.

Only a person of Mr. Randolph's impeccable character and integrity could have pulled the whole thing out of the fire.

Being young and impetuous at the time, I argued that dissolving the League would be unfair to those blacks who were still in jail for refusing to serve in the armed forces. Randolph, always a man of great honor, would not be swayed, noting that he had given his solemn word to the president of the United States. He had demanded an executive order, and that demand had been met. Unsatisfied with that answer, a number of “Young Turks” and I decided to outflank Mr. Randolph. He had asked me to call a press conference for four o’clock on 17 August 1948 in order to announce the dissolution of the League. Well, we called a press conference of our own for ten o’clock that morning, during which we denounced Randolph as an Uncle Tom, a sellout, a reactionary, and an old fogey out of touch with the times. Of course, we got all the headlines. For months we continued to operate the League, sending out correspondence and continuing to embarrass Mr. Randolph. Finally, Randolph was forced to issue a statement. Always a man of great tact and patience, he did not blast us for our impertinence. He merely said that the League had been co-opted by a pacifist element that, while useful to keep the movement nonviolent, now had its own agenda.

Such was Randolph’s stature that the League lost all influence and resources quickly dried up. It finally collapsed in November 1948. Guilt-ridden and ashamed, and sure that Randolph would never forgive me for my treachery, I avoided him for two whole years. I was convinced that even a man of such understanding, dignity, and forebearance would never forget being stabbed in the back by trusted confidants and friends. When I finally mustered the courage to go see him, I went to his modest union office on 125th Street, the very place I had first met him some ten years earlier, expecting to be chastised for my recklessness. As I was ushered in, there he was, distinguished and dapper as ever, with arms outstretched, waiting to greet me, the way he had done a decade ago. Motioning me to sit down with that same sweep of his arm, he looked at me, and in a calm, even voice said: “Bayard, where have you been? You know that I have needed you.” I was moved and overwhelmed. For the rest of our long friendship, he never, ever mentioned what I had done to him. Mr. Randolph’s crowning achievement, the 1963 March on Washington, which led to a confrontation with President Kennedy, also included a dramatic and trying episode that threatened my personal reputation and the march itself. Again, Randolph’s dignity and nerve saved my career and what was to become a watershed event of the civil rights movement.

When Randolph asked me to organize the march, he envisioned it as a march for jobs and freedom. By now a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Council (the first black to hold this position), Randolph understood that the upcoming phase of the civil rights movement would involve economic justice. In planning the march, Randolph did not consult with the other black leaders until all the mechanisms were in place, presenting them with a fait accompli they would find hard to refuse. When final preparations were being made, a nervous President Kennedy, who had been working to get civil rights legislation passed in Congress, called a meeting of a number of top black leaders on 22 June 1963. The president voiced his concern about possible violence and the fact that some congressmen might not vote for the legislation if they felt pressured by a mass demonstration in the nation’s capital. His position was that one simply could not bully Congress. After comments from other black leaders, Randolph took the floor, speaking with, as Arthur Schlesinger would later recall, “the quiet dignity which touched Kennedy as it had touched Roosevelt before him.” Noting the inevitability of the march, Randolph said: “Mr. President, the Negroes are already in the streets. It is very likely impossible to get them off. If they are bound to be in the streets in any case, is it not better that they be led by organizations dedicated to civil rights and disciplined by struggle rather than to leave them to other leaders who care neither about civil rights nor nonviolence?”

With those words, Randolph not only convinced Kennedy that the march was unstoppable, but got him to endorse it as well.

But just as plans were being made final, a serious crisis arose that would test Randolph’s trust in me and all his skills as a leader. Six weeks before the march, Senator Strom Thurmond stood before the Senate and for over three-quarters of an hour attacked me as the organizer of the march in an effort to disrupt and divide the black leadership. He accused me of being a draftdodger, a Communist, and a homosexual. The papers jumped all over the story. It made the front page of the New York Times, and it was plastered in papers around the country. By this time, the march had gained international attention. As expected, Senator Thurmond’s accusations caused pandemonium among the black leadership. Roy Wilkins had predicted that if I were made chief organizer of the march these charges would be made.

Randolph quickly called the black leaders together, and there was a fierce debate over my future role. He said that the purpose of Thurmond’s remarks was to destroy the march, and that the purpose of the meeting was to make certain that he did not succeed. He then said he had already prepared a statement which he wanted all the leaders of the march to sign, adding that he had called a press conference for the next day at which he would read the statement and tell the media that all the leaders had agreed to it. The statement read: “We have absolute confidence in Bayard Rustin’s ability and character, and he will continue to organize the march, which we know will be a great success.” Many of the leaders expressed concern that the press would hound them for further comments, to which Mr. Randolph said that the only way to put an end to the controversy was for all of them to repeat the simple statement he had just read.

The next morning, Mr. Randolph met the press alone. It was the biggest press conference to date dealing with the march. There must have been fifty people there from newspapers and radio and television stations around the country. For ten minutes after he read the statement, the press tried to goad Mr. Randolph to say more. They badgered him with questions. With his customary self-control and calm, Randolph simply repeated the one-line statement. He said it so quietly that the press corps had to lean in to hear him. And the reporters, who had been incessantly pumping Randolph for more information, recognized the inner strength of this dignified man and burst into spontaneous applause. It was an unbelievable moment. And six weeks later, on 28 August, over 250,000 people gathered in Washington for the largest demonstration ever held in the capital. Only a person of Mr. Randolph’s impeccable character and integrity could have pulled the whole thing out of the fire.

The way Mr. Randolph decisively handled the crisis that arose before the march taught me lessons that would later help me act quickly to protect his dignity. After the March on Selma in 1965, during which he walked several grueling miles in the blazing sun, Mr. Randolph, who was already over seventy and suffered from a serious heart condition, passed out at the train station. Almost immediately, press photographers rushed over, trying to get a picture of the stricken warrior lying on the ground. I quickly got together a group of tough, brawny associates, and we formed a human wall to keep the photographers away. At one point, in the heat of the moment, I unfortunately snatched a camera from someone who had taken a picture and ripped the film out. To this day I regret losing my temper. My associates and I surrounded the Chief until I managed to get Dick Gregory’s plane to fly Mr. Randolph to New York and get him to a hospital. Later, a reporter came up to me and complained that the press had to make a living, and the fact that Mr. Randolph had collapsed after the march was news. I recall saying to the man: “It will be over my dead body that anyone ever sees a man of Mr. Randolph’s dignity lying helpless on the ground.” For over four decades Phil Randolph, with moral fortitude and nobility, had won victories that were the key stepping-stones to racial and economic equality for blacks. He had become a symbol of strength and progress. At that moment in Selma, a critical juncture for the civil rights movement he helped launch, I knew I could not allow any impression, any suggestion to emerge, even for a moment, that our gentle warrior was vanquished.

Bayard Rustin (1912–1987) was an influential human rights activist, theorist, and political organizer in the American Civil Rights Movement.
Originally published:
April 1, 1987


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