A. Philip Randolph deserves a memorial on the National Mall in Washington | Opinion
In recent years, the United States has experienced a series of internal conflicts as people across the country have disputed or supported the existence of certain statues and monuments of historical figures. At 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 civil rights and labor movements: Asa Philip Randolph.
At a time of political division, 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, the promotion of civil rights and economic opportunity certainly falls within it. As such, Randolph has earned the right to be commemorated with a memorial, equal to those of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, on the National Mall in Washington.
Born on 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 pastor and tailor. After graduating valedictorian from the Cookman Institute in East Jacksonville in 1907, Randolph continued to work several odd jobs before settling on moving to Harlem, New York.
It was there that Randolph went from 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 United States.
Drawing crowds to his soapbox on a Harlem street corner, he paved the way for the black working class to recognize and confront institutional barriers to equality.
In December 1940, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to ban racial discrimination in hiring into the armed forces, Randolph bravely prepared to lead a march of more than 10,000 black citizens on Washington, D.C. In June 1941, his plan garnered the support of over 100,000 people, which eventually persuaded Roosevelt to pass an executive order banning racial discrimination in defense positions, and Randolph to call off the march.
When President Harry S. Truman resisted desegregation of the armed forces in 1947 — despite black citizens fighting on behalf of the United States in World War I and World War II — Randolph organized people through his League to 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 position 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 about 10,000 black railroad employees to join the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Union, which was the first predominantly black union in the United States.
The Chicago-based Pullman Palace Car Company served mostly white consumers while paying its mostly black employees less than its white employees, in addition to subjecting them to grueling working conditions.
Randolph took the reins of responsibility and led black employees to organize under the BSCP and collectively lobby Congress to ratify the Railway Labor Act. Under the new standards, Pullman was prohibited from firing BSCP members, allowing the union to negotiate new contracts that reduced working hours and increased wages.
The railroad workers recognized something in Randolph that should be present in all the people we, as a society, immortalize with monuments and memorials: integrity. Randolph was not a power-drunk or fame-ridden man, he was a man determined to inspire the black people around him to recognize and fight injustice.
While our society has become consumed with academic debates over whether statutes should highlight those guilty of supporting inhumane practices like slavery for historical purposes, it should be without debate that a man who has advanced fundamental equality deserves praise.
Randolph was not a man who simply signed his name 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 that he was named president of the march, revered for his tactics of using nonviolence to change public sentiment.
It is time for the United States to properly recognize the importance of Randolph and build a monument to his memory on the National Mall to commemorate his work in dismantling the vices of discrimination and oppression. When society is engulfed in debates over people’s praise, Randolph serves as a model American hero for his fearless leadership. He fought to organize 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 class discussions and handouts once a year is not enough. To tangibly honor the history and contributions of influential Black Americans, Randolph must be commemorated in the nation’s capital.