"Justice is never given; it is exacted and the struggle must be continuous for freedom is never a final fact, but a continuing evolving process to higher and higher levels of human, social, economic, political and religious relationship."
These are the words of a visionary who started as anything but. The son of tailor and minister, he worked his way through college and went on to become a writer, an organizer, and a leader in both the Civil Rights movement and the labor movement. His name is A. Philip Randolph, and today AFGE honors his memory on what would have been his 126th birthday.
Randolph was raised in New York City and grew up during World War I, where he became interested in populist literature and began studying the history of class struggle. He went on to found The Messenger, a pioneering political and literary magazine written by African American writers, with his friend Chandler Owen.
He went on to become an organizer for an elevator operator union before going on to direct the National Brotherhood of Workers of America - a predominantly African American union of dock workers in Virginia. Though this union was later dissolved, he used the hard lessons learned in NBWA to organize what is arguably his life's greatest achievement. In 1925 he was elected President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, where he dramatically increased membership and secured new rights for railroad workers. Because of his leadership, President Roosevelt passed key amendments to the Railway Labor Act in 1934 - a law which raised wages, reduced hours, and secured overtime pay and other key benefits for workers.
As he fought for workers' rights, he also became one of the most visible faces in the long national struggle for civil rights. He helped organize a march on Washington in 1941 to protest segregation and discrimination in industry. The threat led President Roosevelt to pass what became known as the Fair Employment Act, a law designed to outlaw racial discrimination in manufacturing. Using similar tactics, he was able to force the desegregation of the U.S. military in 1948. In the 1950's and 60's he allied himself with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the fight to desegregate schools, secure voting rights, and secure a brighter economic future for millions of oppressed African American citizens.
With the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Randolph realized his dream of bringing a coalition of civil and workers rights to the cradle of power in Washington. Though many viewed the March as the culmination of the civil rights movement, Randolph prophesized in his remarks that it was just the beginning:
"We here today are only the first wave. When we leave, it will be to carry on the civil rights revolution home with us into every nook and cranny of the land, and we shall return again and again to Washington in every growing numbers until total freedom is ours. We shall settle for nothing less, and may God grant that we may have the courage, the strength, and faith in this hour of trial by fire never to falter."
Throughout his life and work he adhered to the principles he spoke of that day: empowering the powerless, challenging authority, and never faltering in the hardest of times; for it is the hardest of times that forge the greatest of people. A. Phillip Randolph is an inspiration to all of us, and AFGE salutes his legacy on this day.