March 6, 1963: A. Philip Randolph (third from left) meets with other organizers of the March on Washington at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stands to his right. (photo: OFF/AFP/Getty Images)
When we asked Grace Lee Boggs to speak about a leader who inspired her across her 96 years, the “elder stateswoman of the Black Power movement” credited labor leader A. Philip Randolph as her inspiration:
“In 1941, I was working for $10 a week in the philosophy library of the University of Chicago. I had got my PhD the year before. But $10 a week didn’t allow me to live very luxuriously, in fact, I was living rent-free in a basement. One of the disadvantages was that I had to face down a barricade of rats in order to get to the basement. And that put me in touch with the black community which was also facing rat-infested housing.
It was July 1941 and A. Philip Randolph was calling upon blacks to march on Washington to demand jobs in defense industries. Because the depression that ended for white workers were not for black workers. When Franklin Roosevelt heard about the march, he begged Randolph to call it off. Randolph refused. Mrs. Roosevelt begged him to call off the march, Randolph refused. And eventually FDR issued executive order 8802 (Fair Employment Act) banning discrimination in defense plants for blacks.
That changed the life of blacks and made me decide I was going to become a movement activist. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I’ve been so fortunate!”
The 1941 March on Washington never happened. FDR did issue an executive order, which was enacted into law as the Fair Employment Act. Randolph’s idea later came to fruition over 20 years later when he directed the 1963 March on Washington. With 250,000 people attending, it was the largest peaceful demonstration for human rights in U.S. history, and the setting for Martin Luther King Jr.’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech.
The audio above features A. Philip Randolph speaking at the 1963 March on Washington. His voice is deeply sonorous and moving in its call for equality not only for the sake of African Americans, but for all people.