Cynthia Taylor will be reading from her book, “A. Philip Randolph: The Religious Journey of an African American Labor Leader” at the Christian Science Reading Room at 900 J St. on Sunday, April 19 at p.m. Taylor teaches Humanities at Dominican University of California in San Rafael.
CW: How did you get interested in the story of A. Philip Randolph?
CT: I was teaching African American history at a community college in the Bay Area. Later, as a doctoral student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, my interest in Randolph increased as I studied the response of black churches to the original March on Washington Movement in the 1940s. The original MOWM was Randolph’s early attempt to form a Civil Rights organization to protest how African Americans were shut out from the economic opportunities created in 1940, as Americans began building their “Arsenal of Democracy” in anticipation of joining another European war.
By this time, Randolph had become well-known as a successful labor leader and president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the union organized for and by Pullman porters. One year before Pearl Harbor, Randolph had threatened to mobilize 10,000 African Americans to march on Washington, D.C. to demonstrate African American frustration with their economic situation. This idea was so popular among African American communities throughout the U.S. that a march was planned for July 1, 1941, with an estimated 100,000 blacks marching. A few days before the threatened march, President Roosevelt’s issued Executive Order 8802 establishing the President’s Committee on Fair Employment Practices (FEPC), which sponsored public hearings on employment discrimination during World War II. In my study, I found that black churches enthusiastically supported Mr. Randolph’s civil rights efforts as did most black civil, social and political organizations.
CW: Tell me a little bit of the story of Randolph and his religious journey.
CT: With my original study on the 1940s MOWM, I became interested in how secondary literature often portrayed Randolph as an atheist and antagonistic to religion and to the Black Church. The more I studied Randolph’s papers and other primary sources, the more I became convinced that this characterization of Randolph’s religiosity was not true. Randolph successfully inspired and organized progressive ministers and their congregations to fight the Jim Crow system of segregation from the 1920s through the 1970s. As the modern civil rights movement emerged in the 1950s under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., Randolph joined an African Methodist Episcopal church in Harlem.
CW: It seems like most people today remember later Civil Rights leaders–Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers. Have people forgotten about Randolph to some extent, even though he outlived King and others?
CT: Yes, there is historical amnesia about early civil rights leaders like A. Philip Randolph, and this is partly due to their own successful opposition to the Jim Crow system from its inception in the 1890s. It was Randolph’s generation of civil rights activists that laid the groundwork that enabled King and his generation to reap the rewards of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. For example, Randolph’s proposed 1941 march finally took place twenty-three years later on August 28, 1963. Today this date is remembered for King’s great “I Have a Dream” speech. Yes, Dr. King may have wowed the audience with his speech that day, but it was Randolph and his influential connections to other civil rights organizers and leaders that planned, organized, and made the march and the speech possible.
CW: How did Randolph see the role of religion in the labor movement and the Civil Rights movement? These issues seem to have largely come undone from each other in more recent decades.
CT: Since the mid-1920s, when he began to actively organize the Pullman porters into their own trade union, Randolph recognized how central it was to gain the support of all African American religious communities behind his labor activism. He understood how religious communities were organized into churches and led by dynamic preachers chosen by the very congregations they led. Randolph saw his role as an educator teaching African Americans about the advantages of having and organizing labor unions of their own. I write about how the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage, in which Randolph served as a key organizer, was the first civil rights demonstration in which black religious communities and churches joined in public partnership with a secular civil rights organization, the NAACP, and with black labor organizations such as Randolph’s BSCP. This three-way leadership among these African American communities and organizations was the foundation of the most successful civil rights campaigns and demonstrations of the 1960s.
CW: Which do you see more likely to get wrapped back into the labor movement–religion or racial civil rights? On the one hand, there is a younger generation of Evangelicals now who are concerned about social issues. On the other, Latino immigrants have revitalized the labor movement.
CT: Both the left and right are coming together when it comes to civil and social rights. The labor movement, like the Democratic Party, is working to distance itself from the past perception that it is anti-religious. President Obama’s affiliation with a progressive church community illustrates my point that people on the Left can be religious too. If the labor movement ignores the deep religiosity of Latino immigrants, it is only hurting itself. The fact that younger Evangelicals are committed to social issues shows they are returning to their 19th century religious and socially-conscious roots which played a large role in Women’s Rights and in the Antislavery Movement.