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Freethought Giant A. Philip Randolph and the March on Washington

By Sikivu Hutchinson

As the nation commemorates the 1963 March on Washington, many are unaware of the towering role played by freethought pioneer A. Philip Randolph.  Randolph founded the March on Washington movement during World War II as a challenge to wartime employment discrimination and the segregation of African American troops.  As founder of the trailblazing black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union and publisher of the radical socialist journal the Messenger, Randolph was a crucial voice of activist resistance to American imperialism, capitalism, and racial disenfranchisement.  Left activist freethinkers like Randolph understood that they had to reach across the ideological “aisle” to organize with progressive believers.  This was a necessity if they were going to gain any traction in their local communities.  As I wrote in my 2011 book Moral Combat:

Randolph utilized religion to reach the black masses.  Although Randolph was widely believed to be an atheist, he understood the appeal religious themes had for a black constituency born and bred on religiosity.[i]  Randolph relied on black churches and religious organizations for political outreach and community support.  As one of the first black union organizations in the U.S., Brotherhood meetings and forums were frequently held at or supported by local black churches across the nation. Insofar as the BSCP’s platform drew on religious themes, Randolph’s acknowledgment of and respect for religion can perhaps be viewed as a form of cultural competence. However, throughout his career as publisher and editor of the influential journal the Messenger, Randolph provided a platform for vigorous critique of Christianity’s role in black liberation struggle.  In 1927, the journal sponsored an essay writing contest titled “Is Christianity a Menace to the Negro?”[ii]  As a socialist and vocal critic of “orthodox” Christianity, Randolph was constantly plagued with accusations of being an infidel. Of course, known infidels couldn’t be effective black leaders.  According to Cynthia Taylor:

 

In the beginning the Messenger editors set out to attack all that was ‘narrow and medieval in religion,’ especially the Negro Church’s accommodation to Jim Crow.  Randolph himself redirected this counterproductive editorial policy in order to reach out to progressive-minded allies inside and outside the Negro Church.  With the demise of radicalism by the 1920s, Randolph and other Messenger editors nonetheless kept up the debate on ‘orthodox’ black Christianity by offering religious alternatives to their readers…In this process, Randolph insisted that religious ideas and institutions were not so sacrosanct as to be excluded from democratic debate…In the Messenger’s last phase…he consciously distanced himself from atheism while still challenging the Negro Church’s position.[iii]

 

Taylor also notes that Randolph’s distancing from atheism was influenced by anti-communist sentiment that would crescendo in the post-World War II era.  Randolph was especially sensitive to the charge; he believed that being smeared as a non-believer was also motivated by racism.  Being a non-believer, black, and part of the radical left was a lethal combination.  Like many radical organizers aligned with communist and socialist politics during this period, Randolph was the subject of an FBI probe and frequent smears by the mainstream media.  As the organizer of the first planned March on Washington in 1941, his later vision of community organizing was both socialist and humanist. Equitable living wage jobs, decent affordable housing, and full enfranchisement were basic human rights.  The absence of these rights in the twentieth century U.S. made a mockery of its claim to democracy.  In the context of Randolph’s political organizing, Christianity became a lingua franca for black solidarity and not a litmus test.

Fifty years later, as the wealth gap between whites, African Americans and Latinos in “exceptionalist” America has become more egregious,Randolph’s towering leadership on social and economic justice remains a model for radical humanist organizing. 



[i] Clarence Taylor, Black Religious Intellectuals: The Fight for Equality from Jim Crow to the 21st Century (New York: Routledge, 2002), 13-15.  Taylor argues that Randolph framed black labor and civil rights resistance in terms of religious triumph/redemption rather than in terms of class struggle. Cynthia Taylor argues that Randolph publicly denied he was an atheist perhaps out of political expedience; the “charge” atheist and communist were often yoked together to discredit progressive leaders.  See Taylor, A Philip Randolph: The Religious Journey of an African American Labor Leader (New York: New YorkUniversity Press, 2006), 80-82.

[ii] Cynthia Taylor, 70.

[iii] Ibid., 84-5.

Comments

  1. dezn_98 says

    That is a very interesting piece of history. Thank you for giving me something to chew on… I was having a conversation about this stuff (the role religions play in the black and brown community) just the other day too! Funny how things line up.

  2. A Hermit says

    Thanks again for introducing me to so many under-appreciated people. I’m beginning to understand how superficial my knowledge of this part of America’s history is and I’m happy to be learning more.

    • Anthony K says

      Echoing A Hermit’s comment. I add to my list of books to read every time I come here. And, as a Canadian, I am reminded of how much ‘official’ Canadian history represses the contributions of PoC, including black PoC, to my own country as well. I’m going to go do some reading.

  3. says

    I fall somewhere into the area of half Hispanic PoC (due to Mother’s side of family, they were swarthy and Spanish) that constantly gets mistaken for african-american PoC, but it’s nevertheless interesting to learn more about these sorts of figures and their struggles in the social sphere.

  4. believerskeptic says

    This is such an important piece of history, because for one thing it gives atheists a reply whenever MLK is inevitably trotted out as an example of “the good religion can do.” Not every single civil rights activist was motivated by religion, and that needs to be stressed.

  5. says

    I certainly consider myself a PoC civil rights activist in as much as I can be. It’s good to learn of other people who were more able to do the work, and feel inspired by them and the things they were able to teach people and accomplish. Also@MLK, he’s such a godsend (afterthefact) to the bourgeouisie in this country, as it enables them to reframe the discussion holding up MLK as the ‘good guy’, in order to try to keep using religion to fleece PoC and keep us down. MLK has been so appropriated by the bourgeouisie in this country, it’s almost as if he’s become a buzzword.

  6. double-m says

    In my opinion, Randolph is a great example of how an honest view of the world leads to a progressive stance. Observing the world as it is, instead of deluding oneself, may sometimes be unsettling, but it is also a precondition for taking the necessary steps toward improvement. As for his “toning down” of his message, it’s difficult for a 21st century person to say anything useful about it. Those really were different times, and the presence of religion was even more pervasive than it is today. Perhaps it would have been different for him, if the internet had provided him with the same “you’re not alone” sense we can experience today. In any case, it was learning about people like Randolph, like Gora, like Chris Hani & Joe Slovo, that turned me from vaguely non-believing, gypsy version of a valley girl, into an Atheist who reads books.

    I also want to mention just for the record that I had to be 20 years old and in Europe to even hear the name A. Philip Randolph. The only organized labor activists I was ever taught about in U.S. high school, were white (and they were portrayed in a very negative light). I wonder if this has changed over the past 15 years. Whatever one’s political affiliation may be, people like Randolph are part of American history, students have a right to learn about them, and the communities they represent have a right not to be edited out of history. A democracy that deserves its name teaches its children facts in a fair and balanced way, so that they can draw their own conclusions. Misrepresenting a biased interpretation of history as fact in classrooms, is a hallmark trait of authoritarian regimes.

    If anyone responds to this and expects a reply, please be patient, we’re in the middle of a move, I may or may not have internet access.

  7. says

    Thank you for this, Sikivu. I, living in my bubble, had never heard of Randolph until recently through skeptical sites, and it’s wonderful to see more detail on who he was, what he did, and how he much he mattered.

    • blackskeptics says

      You’re welcome, and yes the erasure of radical activists/public intellectuals like Randolph (and others) from “official” history is criminal.

  8. says

    I knew about Randolph’s union organizing, and admired him enormously for that, but I didn’t know he was a freethought activist too. Now I have even more respect for him, because seriously, he kicked ass.

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