The date of the unveiling of a bust of A. Philip Randolph was incorrect in the District Weekly yesterday. The ceremony in honor of Randolph, the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and first black vice president of the AFL-CIO, will take place at 11 a.m. today in the Passenger Concourse of Union Station. (Published 10/19/90)
It has been more than 10 years since the death of the man known as "The Gentle Warrior." But today's unveiling of a bronze bust of A. Philip Randolph at Union Station could not be more timely.
Randolph, the legendary leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, still stands as a symbol of sacrifice and discipline, and the revolutionary power that flows from a confluence of the two.
To have his likeness unveiled on the concourse of Union Station rivals the reopening of Union Station itself, for there would be no railroad as we know it without Randolph, the men he represented and those who, like John Henry, set the stage for him.
"The sleeping car porters were among the most dignified workers in America," said Chuck Bremer, assistant director of the social action department for the International Union of Electronics. "They sacrificed for their families, traveling from station to station to earn a living, but only getting paid for the time that the train was actually rolling."
Randolph began organizing railroad porters in 1925, convinced that the men responsible for making beds and hauling luggage were being exploited. Randolph had worked as a waiter on the Fall River Line.
At the time, the Pullman Co. controlled virtually all of the sleeping and chair cars on American railroads. The thousands of porters who manned them were paid $60 a month for a basic work period amounting to almost 400 hours or 11,000 miles of travel. Many worked as long as 24 hours at a time. Overtime came only after 400 hours and then was only 25 cents an hour.
Pullman also had what amounted to a company union, run by company favorites who received preferred runs and special treament. Randolph derided them as "Hat in Hand Negroes."
Twelve years later, Randolph won his first contract for the porters.
He went on to become the first black president of the AFL-CIO and, before his death in May 1979, headed the A. Philip Randolph Institute in New York, an organization dedicated to increasing economic opportunities for all minorities.
Almost single-handedly, Randolph persuaded Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman to pass major laws against racial discrimination. His tactic: the threat of huge marches on Washington, of which he organized five -- including the 1963 march for jobs and freedom.
But Randolph's story is not just about his accomplishments, which are obviously extraordinary. Rather, it is his style that holds the greatest hope for the future.
At a time when greed, deceit and violence have become the order of the day, Randolph's legacy as an honorable man, respected by friend and foe alike, is truly worth immortalizing.
A guiding principle throughout his life was the achievement of change through peaceful means, which he learned from his father, who was a minister in their home town of Jacksonville, Fla., and Mahatma Gandhi.
"My father was happy about my nonviolence stand," Randolph said in a 1973 interview. "He didn't want to feel that his son was going around the country urging black people to rise up against white people and use physical force."
Militant black leaders criticized Randolph for his patience and faith in nonviolence, but then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover knew precisely who was the greater threat to this nation's racist ways when he dubbed Randolph "the most dangerous man in America."
Randolph already had demonstrated how the economic power of the labor movement could be applied to improve the lot of blacks, and Hoover was unnerved.
"I don't ever remember a single day of hopelessness," Randolph said. "Organizing the porters was an undertaking of great trial. Thank God we survived. We built a union that had great spiritual qualities, as the Pullman Company eventually came to recognize."
While passing through Union Station, visitors would do well to pay homage at the Randolph bust. Don't be surprised if there appears to be a halo above it.