March on Washington: A. Philip Randolph

This portrait of A. Philip Randolph, painted by Betsy Reyneaux, shows him standing in front of railroad tracks, . This record is a photograph of the original painting (ARC 559204).

This coming Sunday is the dedication of the new Martin Luther King, Jr., National Memorial on the National Mall. It’s also the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington, when King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to the assembled thousands.

As I looked at the program from the day and then at some group photographs, I started to wonder about the other men who were part of the events. I picked a name from the group—A. Philip Randolph—and searched our Online Public Access engine. I quickly realized I knew nothing of a man who had been active in civil rights and labor for a long time before August 28, 1963.

Mary Graves Reyneau painted Randolph’s portrait as part of a series called “Portraits of Outstanding Americans of Negro Origin,” commissioned by the Harmon Foundation. The original 22 portraits were exhibited at the Smithsonian and later around the country. The depiction of Randolph was displayed in the company of portraits of Mary McLeod Bethune, Thurgood Marshall, and W.E.B. DuBois two decades before the March on Washington.

Randolph was an influential man who had organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925. The Pullman Company began to negotiate with the unionized porters in 1935, but it was not until 1937 that a contract was reached. Randolph was used to hard work and to waiting for results—but he was also skilled at organizing and rallying.

In 1946, Randolph and colleague Grant Reynolds wrote to President Truman asking that segregation be ended in the military through an Executive order. In 1958, he was part of a group who met with President Eisenhower. And of course, in 1963, he was the director of the great rally called the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”

A. Philip Randolph was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1970 by President Johnson. He passed away at the age of 90 in 1979, just seven years after the march that he organized.

You have to wonder how he felt, looking out over the crowds of people that day in 1963. Did he feel that his work had finally come to fruition? Or was he thinking ahead of the work that still needed to be done?

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