[A 1978 series of articles in The Militant newspaper.]
A. Philip Randolph & the Sleeping Dar Porters
The role of Black workers in the fight for freedom
By Frank Lovell
(First of three parts)
An amicable merger of two onetime hostile unions
was ratified last February. It made the Brotherhood
of Sleeping Car Porters an autonomous division of
the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks .
This attracted little attention. It was considered
hardly 'more than another marker at the end of an
era in the rapidly declining railroad passenger
industry. But the history of the Sleeping Car Por-
ters is an instructive chapter in the struggles of
Black workers against their oppressors.
The porters organized themselves fifty years ago.
They sought to redress their grievances against the
imperious management of the Pullman Company
through the conservative trade-union movement of
that time. They eventually accomplished much
more than the limited goals of craft unionism
promised, and for that reason their heritage is
valuable to the future of both the Black movement
and the union movement.
The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters today is
only about 1,000 members-down from a peak of
15,000. It declined because airline passenger service
displaced the Pullman car.
For three decades, from the mid-1920s until the
beginning of the civil rights movement in 1955, the·
Brotherhood was a political force in the Black
community, an organization that symbolized the
struggle of Black workers.
A. Philip Randolph was the organizer and presi-
dent of the union from the day it was founded in
1925 until his retirement in 1968. The growth and
decline of the union paralleled his career.
Randolph was an intellectual. But he depended
upon Black workers and was inclined to follow their
lead. He always noted that his successful crusades
against discrimination were due largely to the
solidarity and support of the Brotherhood.
Randolph was a product of the Black awakening,
the intellectual and artistic ferment and ideological
struggle in Harlem in the 1920s, the Harlem Renais-
sance. Like many other aspiring young Blacks of
that generation, he was attracted to Harlem before
World War I when it was the cultural center of the
English-speaking Black world.
He was born in 1889 ·and left his native Florida
soon after high school. In New York he studied at
City College and was interested in political science,
economics, and philosophy. Inspired by the Debsian
socialist movement, he joined the Socialist Party at
an early age.
In 1917, Randolph, with his friend and comrade,
Chandler Owen, launched The Messenger, a
monthly publication, "the only radical Negro maga-
zine in America." It opposed World War I, "the war
to make the world safe for democracy."
At the same time, it advocated that Black workers
organize against social, political, and economic
inequality, even if this meant strikes and resistance
to the draft.
Randolph was arrested in 1918 for opposing the
war but not prosecuted. He continued his opposition
and was accused of sympathizing with the Russian
revolution, which he did not deny.
After the war, Randolph and Owen became in-
structors for a time at the Rand School of Social
Science in New York. Randolph ran for public office
on the Socialist Party ticket. The Messenger then
described itself as "A Journal of Scientific Radical-
However, unlike the Socialist Party left-wing
faction, Randolph did not take to heart the lessons
of the revolution. When that grouping left the
Socialist Party in 1919 to form the Communist
Party, Randolph remained behind.
He was later to become a right-wing Social
Democrat, bitterly opposed to the Soviet Union and
other workers states and aligned with American
capitalism in its crusade abroad to "contain com-
Prior to World War I and during the 1920s, a deep
ideological division developed among Blacks over
how to effectively combat racial oppression. Ran-
dolph and The Messenger represented a distinct
current in that debate.
Like other members of the Socialist Party left
wing, Randolph believed that ending race prejudice
and discrimination required striking at their eco-
nomic roots. This set them, along with the fledgling
Communist movement, apart from the right-wing
Socialists-who at best ignored racist oppression as
a relevant issue.
Among Black leaders and organizations there
were those-typified by Booker T. Washington-
who advocated a course of gradualism. Washington
counseled Blacks to put off the struggle for political
representation and an end to social inequalities and
abuses. Instead, he explained, Blacks should con-
centrate on acquiring skills, wealth, and middle-
class respectability. That, he insisted, would lead to
acceptance by the white majority.
Randolph opposed this reactionary collaboration-
ist doctrine, which supported the Republican Party
in those days and sought favors from the white
ruling class in return for subservience.
Although Washington advocated the development
of industrial skills by Blacks, his emphasis on
subservience to the ruling class ruled out a struggle
to win Blacks jobs in industry or to effectively
protect Black workers' wages and living standards.
This meant from the beginning that he made little
appeal to Black workers.
In fact, his base was among the small layer of
Black businessmen, preachers, and professionals,
whom W.E.B. DuBois was to later dub the "talented
tenth." The organization that best reflected this
approach at the time was the National Urban
Out of this milieu, and in reaction to Washing-
ton's gradualism, developed a younger, more confi-
dent, radical strain of Black intellectuals who
advocated protest against racial oppression and
fighting for ballot rights for Blacks. This current
found expression in the Niagara Movement founded
by DuBois in 1905. It took firmer organizational
form in 1909 with the founding of the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The NAACP was born in opposition to Black
subservience, "to achieve, through peaceful and
lawful means, equal citizenship rights for all .... "
It appealed to nationalist sentiments and sought to
advance the Black race.
Its founder, W.E.B. DuBois, later wrote that he at
first thought "race prejudice was primarily a matter
of ignorance on the part of the mass of men .... "
But he discovered that "the barriers of race
prejudice were certainly as strong in 1930 as in
1910 .... " He concluded that "there must be other
and stronger and more threatening forces, forming
the founding stone of race antagonism."
These "other forces" were linked to the powerful
financial interests that control society.
Though the founding of the NAACP represented
a radical break with the ideas of Washington and a
more militant approach to fighting Jim Crow dis-
crimination and Black disfranchisement, its per-
spectives were limited by the aims of the milieu
from which it sprang-the small layer of Black
professionals and small-time Black businessmen.
DuBois himself noted that "the Association had
attracted the higher income group of colored people,
who regard it as a weapon to attack the sort of
social discrimination which especially irked them;
rather than as an organization to improve the
status and power of the whole Negro group."
In other words, this small Black middle class,
preoccupied with its own advancement, was incapa-
ble of mounting a consistent battle for the rights of
all Blacks-which included the rights to a decent
material existence and to decent wages and work-
ing conditions for the Black working class.
Such a struggle would have meant a serious
challenge to the prerogatives of capitalism, and
they were convinced that capitalism would open up
for them-if prodded enough-big new opportuni-
One current that sparked the imagination of
Blacks across the country at that time was the
Black nationalism of Marcus Garvey. Garvey's
teachings of racial pride and positive identification
with Blacks' African past inspired masses of
However, though Garvey spoke out continually
against the racist oppression Blacks confronted, he
posed no course of struggle against these daily
indignities and horrors-from segregated schools to
lynchings. Instead, he advocated emigration of
Blacks to Africa.
In pursuit of that goal Garvey would block with
anyone, even the most rabid reactionary white
supremacists. And he consciously sought the aid of
American and European capitalists-the mortal
enemies of Black working people-to help accom-
plish his venture.
Power of Black workers
Randolph stood out from all these currents within
the Black movement of his day. He was convinced
that Black people would be emancipated only when
the capitalist system of economic exploitation was
overturned by the working class.
He also recognized that Blacks were forced by
their segregation in capitalist society to form their
He understood the double exploitation of Blacks
as workers and as a national minority. But he did
not make the connection that their struggle could be
the lever to topple capitalism.
He did not think that Blacks could realistically
strive for anything beyond social reforms. However,
in his view even this would require the organization
and mobilization of the Black masses-a unique
position to hold in his day.
Considered a high-brow publication, The Mes-
senger nonetheless expounded these working-class
concepts: Black organization and unity of all
workers. And when Randolph met in 1925 with a
small group of Pullman Company workers to form
the Brotherhood, these concepts were the guidelines
·of the new union. The Messenger became "the
Official Organ of The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car
These ideas that Randolph brought to the organi-
zation were reinforced and expanded by the actions
of the workers who later joined the union, and by
those they influenced. The Brotherhood would dem-
onstrate the latent power of Black workers-this at
a time when the vast majority of Blacks were
sharecroppers, tenant farmers, or otherwise em-
ployed on the land.
This is a useful reminder today when the civil
rights leaders and the growing number· of Black
elected officials have so far proved powerless to lead
a consistent fight against the worsening plight of
the Black masses. The latent power and leadership
potential of Black workers-now the vast majority
of Blacks-is greater today than ever before.
Organizing the Brotherhood
The Brotherhood in its day was a vanguard for
the mass movement of Blacks, and Randolph was
its most articulate representative.
"There was no other group of Negroes in America
who constituted the key to unlocking the door of a
nationwide struggle for Negro rights as the por-
ters," he said in later years. "Without the porters I
couldn't have carried on the fight for fair employ-
ment, or the fight against discrimination in the
Randolph always contended that "Negroes can-
not stop discrimination with conferences of leaders
and the intelligentsia alone .... He believed, "Power
and pressure do not reside in the few, the intelli-
gentsia, they lie in and flow from the masses."
Except for Randolph, the organizers and top
officers of the Brotherhood were all workers, men
with long railroad experience: Ashley L. Totten,
secretary; Milton P. Webster, vice-president in
Omaha; C. L. Dellums, organizer and traveling
delegate in Oakland, California, and along the
Pacific Coast; and E. J. Bradley, vice-president.
They were all victimized by the Pullman Com-
pany, but within three years the union had recru-
ited more than half the porters and maids employed
by Pullman on all the nation's railroads.
In 1928 the union membership voted to strike for
recognition and better working conditions, but
Randolph postponed the action on the "advice" of
AFL President William Green.
The AFL Hotel and Restaurant Employees
claimed jurisdiction over porters and maids; and
later the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks sought
jurisdiction over the red cap railway station porters,
even though the clerks' constitution barred Blacks
Randolph was pragmatic and cautious. He saw
no possibility of winning a strike· against the
powerful Pullman Company without token support,
at least, from the established union movement. His
cancellation of the expected strike was a serious
blow to the union. The membership lost confidence
in its promises, and most of them left. I
It had not been easy to convince the porters to
join the union in the first place. They had good
reason to be distrustful. The railroad brotherhoods
were the worst Jim Crow organizations in the labor
It was only with the rise of the CIO and the
advent of industrial unionism that the practice of
excluding Blacks from the unions was breached.
This practice was not totally broken down until
after the civil rights movement, independent of the
unions, had destroyed Jim Crow in the South
during the 1960s.
The Brotherhood was not destroyed by the seem-
ingly insurmountable obstacles of craft union div-
isions and race prejudice. It was animated by the
idea ". . . that the question of wages, hours of work,
safeguards on the job and proper representation of
the worker are the most important problems con-
fronting the majority of men and women, black as
well as white, in the United States .... "
·In 1929 the AFL issued federal charters to Broth-
erhood locals in several cities but refused to recog-
nize it on an ·equal basis with other affiliates. As a
sign of adjustment to AFL conservatism, The
Messenger was dropped at this time as the official
publication. The new union paper, Black Worker,
lacked the militant policy and socialist message of
By this time Randolph's political outlook had
undergone· change. He was no longer an active
member of the Socialist Party, considering himself
only an adherent of the broad socialist movement
with no organizational ties. He operated as a
freelance socialist, reflecting the views of right-wing
Social Democracy and moving closer to the union
He was unable, however, to gain recognition and
acceptance in top circles of the old AFL bureau-
cracy. Not until 1936 was the Brotherhood finally
granted an AFL charter, and then only after it won
recognition as the collective bargaining agent for
Pullman porters. It was the first all-Black union to
gain recognition from a major corporation. And
that put new life int9 the union.
Opposing AFL bias
Randolph headed a delegation of Pullman porters
at every AFL national convention from 1934 until
the AFL-CIO merger in 1955, and at each of them
he demanded an investigation of discrimination in
the craft unions, the building trades and railroad
insufferable bureaucrats, but barely.
At the 1944 convention the AFL finally adopted a
resolution condemning race prejudice and demand-
ing a permanent Fair Employment Practices Com-
mittee of the Roosevelt administration and Con-
gress. In 1948 it endorsed a permanent FEPC and
an "effective" civil rights program.
These programmatic changes on the part of the
AFL bureaucracy were prompted by political shifts
and economic changes undertaken by the American
ruling class-from whom the labor "statesmen"
take their cue.
On the economic front, the mechanization of
southern agriculture brought with it the growing
urbanization of Blacks and their growing employ-
ment in the service trades and ::;ome industry.
Politically the American capitalists needed to rid
the U.S. of the appearance of flagrant racism in a
postwar world where the colonial masses were
awakening in revolt.
Thus these changes in the unions were unrelated
to their internal regimes, and had little discernible
effect upon their real policies or activities.
Randolph was made a vice-president of the
merged AFL-CIO, a-token position. When he tried to
influence policy at the 1959 convention and de-
manded the expulsion of any union that excluded
Blacks or maintained segregated Black locals,
Meany dismissed him with a sneer.
He demanded of Randolph, "Who the hell ap-
pointed you the guardian of all the Negroes in
America?" Randolph, not Meany, was later cen-
sured by the AFL-CIO Executive Committee. But
nothing came of it.
Porters: a powerful base
It may appear as if the persistent efforts of the
Brotherhood to win support from the old narrow-
minded AFL were futile, even self-defeating at
times. But the connection with the established
union movement enabled Randolph to organize
independent struggles of Blacks more successfully
than would otherwise have been possible.
He was not limited in his outlook to the petty
affairs of business unionism, but sought continu-
ously to draw the mass of Black workers into a
broad struggle for political and economic equality.
In this respect he was different from other Black
leaders in the 1930s, the pre-World War II period.
Randolph sought allies wherever he could find
them, so long· as they fit into the limits of his
political vision. By that time it did not extend much
beyond Roosevelt's New Deal horizon. In accor-
dance with these limitations it seemed useful to him
to collaborate with the Communist Party, an atti-
tude that was shared by a good many union
bureaucrats and most middle-class Blacks.
In 1936 Randolph helped to form the National
Negro Congress, a popular-front organization con-
trolled by the Stalinized CP. It embraced the all-
Black unions and most Black religious, fraternal,
and civic organizations, including the NAACP. On
paper it was imposing.
The ostensible purpose was to give unity and
direction to the dispersed Black struggle, but the
real reason for it was to line up solid support behind
Roosevelt and the Democratic Party. The organiza-
tion accomplished very little for Blacks except to
give the participants a chance to know each other
better. It fell apart in 1940, after the Stalin-Hitler
pact was signed. Randolph resigned as chairman, ·
and the Stalinists were left with the remnants.
The following year, in 1941, Randolph undertook,
mainly on his own initiative as president of the
Brotherhood, to win concessions in employment for
Blacks from the federal government. It seemed like
a reasonable and realistic project.
The arms program was in full swing. The Roose-
velt administration was preparing for war. But even
then, with a critical labor shortage, unemployed
Blacks were barred from many factory jobs. They
were frustrated, and angry.
The Brotherhood was then a recognized part of
the labor movement, more highly esteemed by the
CIO unions than the AFL of which it remained an -
affiliate because of its craft character. It was a
symbol of success for the great majority of Black
workers who were unorganized, without union
protection on the job, and deprived of the power to
demand jobs where color bars kept them out
Black workers looked to the porters union for
leadership, because these workers on the Pullman
cars had proven that it is possible to organize and
win, even against the seemingly invincible corpora-
During the Second World War the Brotherhood
reached its peak of power and influence, boosted in
membership by the expansion of wartime rail travel
and enhanced in prestige by its support of the Black
struggle for jobs in the war industries.