Hidden History: A. Philip Randolph

Black History Month

The A. Philip Randolph Institute is a nonprofit located in Washington that educates the nation’s youth about the civil rights legacy in DC and current issues important to their communities, like health care and schools.

More than 40 million people travel through Washington DC’s Union Station every year.

But very few stop and stare, much less take a picture, of this civil rights icon who watches over the historic transportation center.

“They called him the gentle giant, but they also called him the most dangerous negro in America.”

Asa Philip Randolph was the most prominent civil rights leader to emerge from the labor movement.

He founded the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters, the country’s first predominantly black labor union that represented thousands of railroad workers.

“He put primary emphasis on class over race and yet he’s clearly one of the most active and influential civil rights activists of the 20th century.”

William Pretzer— a curator at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African American History and Culture— says Randolph’s prominence spanned four presidential administrations, as he also worked to desegregate the Army and ban discrimination in the defense industries.

“It’s that combination thinking of civil rights and economic rights that makes Randolph kind of have his fingers on the pulse of power in Washington.”

His influence culminated with the famous March on Washington in 1963, the demonstration Randolph co-organized.

It brought a quarter of a million people to the National Mall… but only after he convinced President John F Kennedy to let it happen.

“Young folks were climbing the trees. I was one of the tree people. There were people of all color who just wanted to be there.”

That’s where Clayola Brown, the President of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, first heard Randolph speak.

He stressed the importance of freedom and jobs for all Americans.

“Broke is broke. The only color that matters in that kind of discussion is green.”

But the speech everyone remembers from that day is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream.”

“Randolph wanted an opportunity to let the nation see who he was and to let young people see they were represented.”

During his lifetime, many recognized the contributions Randolph made to the country, including President Johnson who awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom but today, very few Americans know the name Asa Philip Randolph.

“He’s another one of those untold stories or at least underrecognized individuals in American history.”

But just like Pretzer and Brown, this monument helps to keep Randolph’s legacy alive.

“I would urge folks to slow down every now and then and take a real look.”

And recognize what it took for people like Randolph to change the course of history.

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