Commentary Magazine

A. Philip Randolph, by Jervis Anderson

A Radical Life

A. Philip Randolph: A Biographical Portrait.
by Jervis Anderson.
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 398 pp. $12.50.

A. Philip Randolph, who Murray Kempton once suggested may be “the greatest man who has lived in the U.S. in this century,” arrived in Harlem from Jacksonville, Florida, in 1911, within a year of the time of the founding of the NAACP, and he lived there for almost sixty years until he moved to an ILGWU housing project on lower Ninth Avenue. His life thus has spanned virtually the entire 20th-century history of Negro protest and civil-rights activism, and though he was not deeply involved in many phases of it—he played almost no role in the NAACP, in CORE, or in SNCC—he was nonetheless during much of this time the best-known black leader in the country, and in later years the most widely-respected one. This remarkable man, aloof not only in manner but in his relations with the (now) better-known civil-rights organizations, acquired extraordinary stature by virtue of forces which he helped create: the radical Messenger magazine, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and two marches on Washington, one in 1941 which he only threatened and another in 1963 which (with the aid of Bayard Rustin) he carried out. He is one of only three blacks—the others were Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King, Jr.—about whom it can be said that they created, however briefly, genuine political mass movements among Negro Americans.

The biographical portrait by Jervis Anderson, a black writer, provides a fascinating but incomplete glimpse of Randolph. Though the book draws on original sources, it is not a full, scholarly biography; though it deals with its subject from birth to the present, nearly four-fifths of the pages concern events prior to 1945; though Randolph appears on virtually every page, he remains an elusive figure, in part, perhaps, because he is an elusive personality—reserved, distant, correct. Anderson brings narrative skill and personal concern to his writing, and the result is a lucid, warm, and informative account. Yet Randolph himself remains a puzzle, or more precisely, the larger significance of Randolph’s life in the times through which he passed is obscure. He was important, feared, respected, and often effective; but is there a lesson to be learned from his life, one that illuminates a general condition?

There may be one: the fate of black radicalism in America. Randolph for much of his life was an outspoken, relentless, and controversial critic of the fundamental institutions of American society. In his early years, he was to the left of W. E. B. Du Bois in that he argued not only against Booker T. Washington, and thus against the acceptance of black social inferiority, but as well against capitalism and thus against the acceptance of the economic status of workers, black and white. Throughout most of his life, Randolph has been an ardent socialist. Though today such an affiliation is both safe and somewhat conventional, in the 1920’s it was dangerous and eccentric.

Through his editorship of the Messenger, a radical Harlem magazine, and his frequent soapbox oratory at the corner of Lenox Avenue and 135th Street, Randolph became a leading figure in a group of young black radicals, most, unlike him, of West Indian ancestry, and all, like him, distrusted by established black leaders and harassed by Justice Department officials who found the magazine to be “by long odds the most dangerous of all the Negro publications.” Indeed, in 1918 Randolph and his co-editor, Chandler Owen, were arrested for having allegedly violated the Espionage Act by virtue of their resistance to American entry into World War I. (The charges were never pressed.)

By 1969, Randolph was being accused by certain young black militants of being an Uncle Tom because he was critical of urban rioting and of the “black power” slogan and because he had supported Israel and the striking white teachers in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school dispute.

Randolph did not change his views on fundamentals. From first to last, he rejected black separatism whether preached by Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, or Stokely Carmichael, he remained a convinced socialist and committed trade unionist, and he never ceased pressing or in any way moderated his insistence on civil rights. The Uncle Tom charge, a foolish slander, is no doubt incomprehensible to a man for whom neither age nor success had produced an abandonment of youthful principles.



Yet there is a sense in which Randolph’s role, if not his views, ceased being radical. When radical rhetoric was his only weapon, Randolph failed utterly. The Messenger had little mass influence: the blacks of Harlem in those years voted steadily for the Republican ticket, the black middle classes remained staunchly anti-union, and support for the magazine came primarily from white liberals and radicals. When Garvey appeared on the scene, millions of blacks followed him in his dreams of an African empire, a handful followed Randolph in his appeal for class consciousness and worker organization. By 1925, Randolph’s “career,” if his pamphleteering can be called that, seemed over. The two governing principles of his political philosophy—civil rights for blacks and economic power for workers—seemed hopelessly in conflict. The AFL, a viable union, was in this period and in most of its parts anti-Negro and anti-radical while the IWW, a radical industrial union with no color bar, was short-lived and unsuccessful.

It was a dilemma that many black radicals faced. In the 1930’s, young Negro intellectuals such as Ralph Bunche and Abram Harris criticized the legal and political strategy of the NAACP and proposed that it shift to an economic-development and class-organization strategy instead, but no one knew how to make the new approach work. Fighting legal battles against lynching and restrictive covenants was a way both to make visible progress and to raise resources; “economic education” and development was only a phrase. “Working-class solidarity” was an interesting idea, but most of the white workers did not want solidarity with blacks, while those white unions that accepted it, such as the CIO unions, were so much stronger than any group of black leaders that they could dominate any partnership. Nor were these mere theoretical difficulties: the National Negro Congress, created in 1936 to carry out the ideas of Bunche, Harris, and Randolph, was in short order taken over, first by the big industrial unions and then by the Communists. Randolph accepted the presidency of the NNC, believing it to be a broad alliance of black organizations and integrated unions, but by 1940 he felt he had to warn the NNC against becoming what in fact it already was: a front organization of the Communist party that was then insisting, in the aftermath of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, that the United States stay out of the European war. His criticisms of the Soviet Union became, in effect, his speech of resignation.

One decisive event changed Randolph’s life, saved him from obscurity, and placed him on the road to a commanding position in the civil-rights movement: his agreement to lead and help organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. He was not a porter, but far from being a disqualification that was an asset: not being employed by the Pullman Company, he could not be fired by the Pullman Company for union organizing. While his views did not change, from that time on he became something more than a rhetorical radical: he became a man with responsibility for the welfare of others, with an organization to create and maintain, and a black constituency to serve. A Socialist became the head of an organization of Republican voters.



The most moving and revealing parts of Jervis Anderson’s book are the accounts of Randolph’s struggle, aided by others but against apparently insuperable odds, to obtain recognition of the BSCP from Pullman. The fact that he achieved his goal only with the aid of New Deal labor legislation—a New Deal he had strongly criticized because it meliorated the profit system but did not abolish it—is ironic, but it does not detract from the magnitude of his own accomplishments. Along the way, the BSCP became an affiliate of the AFL, another irony inasmuch as Randolph had earlier excoriated the AFL as racist and called for its dissolution. And when the CIO was expelled from the AFL in 1938, Randolph and the BSCP remained in the AFL despite his earlier demand for industrial unionism.

Ironies aplenty, but no compromises: from first to last, Randolph maintained his view that a Negro-labor alliance was imperative and that the sins of organized labor were best changed from inside the movement. Persistently and relentlessly, Randolph demanded an end to racially exclusionary practices in labor. Union leaders criticized him, ignored him, fought with him, but they did not silence him, and in the end they agreed with him. Meanwhile, Randolph’s erstwhile pamphleteer friends had dropped from view, embittered by failure or ensnared by Stalinists. Nothing is heard and little is known of them now; their legacies are memories and the back copies of a magazine.

About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.

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