The Forging of the Civil Rights Coalition: Part 1, the Great Depression and the Rise of A. Philip Randolph


In this essay, I examine the influence of the Great Depression and World War II upon the African American leadership. Special attention will be placed upon the perspective of several black leaders of the era, especially A. Philip Randolph who became the black leader during the mid-1930s. I explore the significance of Randolph's emergence by comparing his leadership with that of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). This essay shows that a pivotal change of black thought formed the backdrop of Randolph's emergence.

Before the Great Depression, the guiding principle of black organizations such as the NAACP and the National Urban League had been the "talented tenth," which laid emphasis not upon the ordinary but the gifted personalities of the race. Because of this, their organizational nature was not always suitable to voice the aspiration of working-class blacks. However, with the advent of the Great Depression, the significance of the "talented tenth" declined sharply. When New Deal recovery program did not improve but worsened the economic conditions of African Americans, African American leadership became increasingly alarmed and began to consider organizational reform. One of the principal figures to propose the organizational reform in the NAACP was W. E. B. Du Bois, who advocated the "voluntary segregation." His proposal, however, met bitter opposition. Although Du Bois envisioned to foster self-help of blacks through the utilization of the racial resources, which sometimes derived from the racial segregation, most of the established leaders of the organization could not agree with his opinion. Consequently, after the heated controversy, the NAACP Board of Directors eventually decided to affirm sweeping opposition to segregation, which led Du Bois to resign from the Board. After his resignation, the reform effort was led by Abram Harris who was a staunch supporter of Du Bois. By establishing the Economic Advisory Committee and the Workers' Council, Harris intended to dilute the centralized power of the Board and to encourage working class initiatives in the NAACP programs. However, the Board engaged in prolonged discussion of his proposal and finally took the teeth out of it. Ensuing resignation of Harris meant that the reform efforts within the NAACP came to a halt.

While the NAACP engaged in the bitter intra-organizational fight, the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), with A. Philip Randolph as its president, finally won the recognition from the major railway company. Following this success, Randolph gained a foothold in the American Federation of Labor and began to attract the attention of young black dissidents who planned to build the united-front of black organizations, the National Negro Congress. The fact that the founding meeting of the NNC chose Randolph as its president marked his ascendancy in the black leadership. Yet, the NNC ceased to play a significant role in racial affairs by 1940. In retrospect, the founding of the NNC itself did not indicate the development of the black protest movement, rather it meant the pressing urgency of some black leaders who recognized the deficiency of the established black organizations. These leaders had to face the severe reality: There was no consensus of opinion in black community. Accordingly, when the third convention of the NNC was held in 1940, no less than a third of the delegates had become whites, mainly from the labor unions. It was at this convention that Randolph, who had advocated independence and self-help of the black people throughout his activities, announced his resignation from the presidency.

Previous studies of A. Philip Randolph have characterized him as one of the few African-American leaders who perceived that class oppression underlay the problem of black America. Indeed, his power base was the trade union, which gave him a unique position in the African-American leadership. However, when he led the organizing drive of the BSCP, he appealed not to class but to race consciousness of the black porters. He agitated that the porter who had self-respect could no longer stay content with the paternalism of whites Furthermore, while Randolph forged an alliance with the American Federation of Labor, his relationship with the AFL was not always harmonious: He did not completely rely upon the white brothers of the railway industry and regarded the independence of the black union as indispensable.

Therefore, one of conclusions of this essay is that A. Philip Randolph should not be regarded as a labor leader in a conventional sense. Beginning in the 1934 convention of AFL, he indefatigably fought racial discrimination in labor unions by claiming to expel unions which did not accept black membership. In this respect, his faith in the inter-racial unionism was indeed one of his major characteristics. However, he did not view blacks' interests from the point of class, but from race. He, while seeking to cooperate with the whites, gave the priority to African-American's organizational independence and self-help. Secondly, although the race consciousness was a main vehicle which brought about the success of the BSCP, it was not enough to unite all elements of African-Americans together because the African-American communities were not so homogeneous as the Pullman porters were. This accounts for one of the reasons why Randolph's leadership brought about the different results. These conclusions seem to be inconsistent with the prevalent characterization of the 1930s. Scholars often regard the era as the time when leftist or/and radical organizations succeeded to unite working class Americans across the racial line. However, black activists of the 1930s such as Randolph did not completely discard their racial identity. While vigorously pursuing their race interests, they were struggling to forge an alliance which could initiate viable programs. In later years, this tenacious hold of racial perspective on the part of blacks remaining intact, blacks finally succeeded to forge the civil rights coalition, and it is this perspective that formed the basis of the Black Power of the later era.