A. Philip Randolph

Pioneering leader A. Philip Randolph, whose contributions were critical to the civil rights and labor movements, should be memorialized in the nation’s capital with a monument celebrating his legacy. 

In recent years, the U.S. has experienced a series of internal conflicts as people across the nation have challenged or supported the existence of certain historical figures’ statues and monuments. In a time when a figure’s personal integrity and historical significance can both be represented by a statue, America has forgotten a man who was and is crucial to our understanding of the civil rights and labor movements: Asa Philip Randolph.

In a time of political divisiveness, statues and monuments should reflect those who have guided our nation in the right direction. And while the definition of what is right is subjective, advancing civil rights and economic opportunity surely fit within it. As such, Randolph has earned the right to be remembered with a memorial, on par with those of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, on the National Mall in Washington.

Born April 15, 1889 in Crescent City, Florida, Randolph was the second son of a mother who worked as a seamstress and a father who served his community as a minister and tailor. After graduating as valedictorian from the Cookman Institute in East Jacksonville in 1907, Randolph went on to work several odd jobs before devoting moving to Harlem, New York City.

It was there that Randolph transitioned from being an ordinary Black man in Jim Crow America to an inspiration who would help lead a revolution to radically change the social, legal and political fabric of the U.S.

Drawing crowds to his soapbox on a street corner in Harlem, he led the way for Black working-class people to recognize and confront institutional barriers to equality.

In December 1940, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to prohibit racial hiring discrimination in the armed forces, Randolph courageously prepared to lead a march of more than 10,000 Black citizens on Washington, D.C. By June 1941, his plan garnered the support of over 100,000 people, which ultimately persuaded Roosevelt to pass an executive order barring racial discrimination in defense positions, and Randolph to cancel the march.

When President Harry S. Truman resisted desegregating the armed forces in 1947 — despite Black citizens fighting on behalf of the U.S. in World War I and World War II — Randolph organized people through his League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation to push for change. After inspiring Black and white citizens to resist a Jim Crow system in the armed forces, the threat of civil disobedience forced Truman to reverse his stance on July 26, 1948.

However, it was Randolph’s social and political contributions in 1925 that solidified him as one of the most influential figures in African American history. Randolph organized approximately 10,000 Black railway employees to join the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Union, which was the first majority-Black labor union in the U.S.

The Pullman Palace Car Company, based in Chicago, served mainly white consumers while paying its primarily Black employees less than its white ones, in addition to subjecting them to grueling working conditions.

Randolph took the reins of responsibility and led the Black employees to organize under the BSCP and collectively pressure Congress to ratify the Railway Labor Act. Under the new standards, Pullman was barred from firing members of the BSCP, which allowed the union to negotiate new contracts that reduced work hours and raised pay.

The railroad workers recognized something in Randolph that should be present in all people we as a society immortalize with monuments and commemoration: integrity. Randolph was not a man drunk on power or consumed with fame, he was a man fixated on inspiring the Black people around him to recognize and fight injustice.

When our society has consumed itself with theoretical debates on whether statues should highlight those guilty of supporting inhumane practices like slavery for historical purposes, it should be without debate that a man who advanced basic equality is deserving of praise.

Randolph was not a man who merely signed his name along with thousands of others. He paved the way for some of the most monumental marches in American history, such as the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. His influence was so great he was named chairman of the march, revered for his tactics of using nonviolence to change public sentiment.

It is time the U.S. properly recognize Randolph’s importance and build a monument of him on the National Mall to commemorate his work dismantling the vices of discrimination and oppression. When society is engulfed in debates over people’s worthiness of praise, Randolph serves as a model American hero for his fearless leadership. He fought to unionize oppressed Black Americans, challenge discrimination in the armed forces and organize people to fight for their rights.

Black History Month is the perfect opportunity to cement Randolph’s legacy and honor his contributions. The tired process of reciting stories in classroom discussions and handouts once a year is not enough. To tangibly honor the history and contributions of influential Black Americans, Randolph needs to be memorialized in the nation’s capital.

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