The momentous events that culminated in the March on Washington 50 years ago this week have largely overlooked the legacy of one man whose own dream of such a march was more than two decades in the making.
Asa Philip Randolph — better known as A. Philip Randolph — went from being described as "the most dangerous Negro in America" for his work organizing the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters to being recognized as the grandfather of civil rights.
"No other living American has done more to seek justice for all the poor, the working classes, the minorities in our society and around the world than has A. Philip Randolph," said civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, who was a protege of Randolph's and did much of the planning for the 1963 March on Washington.
Randolph began organizing the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925, which became the first African-American labor union with an international charter from the American Federation of Labor, and the basis for the struggle for civil rights that came in the 1950s and 1960s.
Randolph, who was not a Pullman porter, had co-founded The Messenger, a radical newspaper, with a fellow socialist in 1917.
After being approached by five disgruntled Harlem porters, he agreed to lead the fight in forming a union and to correct the many injustices they had to endure when working, such as long hours, weeks away from home and low pay.
When the Pullman Co. realized that Randolph had enough votes to win the election to represent the porters, the company sent him a blank check with a notation, "Not to exceed $1 million." He refused it and used it to expose the company's methods to buy him off.
It took more than a decade of fighting the Pullman Co. on whose cars the porters worked before the union won a collective bargaining agreement in 1937.
Despite strides being made during President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first two terms, America's labor market remained racially stratified, with African-Americans finding it nearly impossible to find employment in war plants.
In January 1941, Randolph called for a march on Washington, and by April, the Negro March on Washington Movement had 50,000 members who had paid a dollar each to fund the campaign and march.
When he refused to call off the march, Randolph was summoned to the White House, where he told the president he would call off the march if Roosevelt agreed to end racial discrimination in hiring in defense plants.
Initially, Roosevelt balked. "Now, Phil, what do you want me to do?" asked the president, according to a 1963 article in The Washington Post and Times-Herald.
"I want Negroes to be permitted to work in defense industries while other Negroes are fighting overseas," answered Randolph.
With little movement from Roosevelt, Randolph promised the march would grow to more than 100,000, as white neighborhoods in the District of Columbia began to experience a sense of panic and fear of a race war.
Randolph had finally pushed Roosevelt to the edge. About 72 hours before the start of the march, Roosevelt agreed to a compromise and signed Executive Order 8802, which prohibited racial discrimination in hiring in war plants.
Additionally, the president agreed to establish the Fair Employment Practices Commission, whose mission was to investigate violations in private industries.
"In the next day or two," Randolph said in the 1963 interview, "the order was issued and it had a profound effect. The President later told me he was proud to have the order issued in his Administration."
Randolph, who was an advocate of nonviolent change, agreed to call off the march.
In the late 1940s, he founded the League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Against the Military. His subsequent conversations with President Harry S. Truman led to Truman issuing Executive Order 9981 that desegregated the military.
Standing in the heat and humidity of Aug. 28, 1963, Randolph spoke to the more than 225,000 marchers who had gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
What he said that afternoon has been largely forgotten, overtaken by the inspiring words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.
"We are gathered here in the largest demonstration in the history of this nation. Let the nation and the world know the meaning of our numbers," said Randolph in a deep baritone.
"We are not a pressure group; we are not a mob. We are the advance guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom. … We shall return again and again to Washington in ever-growing numbers until total freedom is ours."
Randolph died in 1979 at the age of 90.
Randolph died in 1979 at the age of 90.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun