Hidden History: An overlooked genius behind the March on Washington

Washington D.C.

WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR) — More than 40 million people travel through Union Station in Washington, D.C. every year, but very few stop and stare at the monument of a civil rights icon who watches over the historic transportation center.

Asa Philip Randolph was the most prominent civil rights leader to emerge from the labor movement. He founded the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters, the country’s first predominantly black labor union that represented thousands of railroad workers.

“He put primary emphasis on class over race, and yet he’s clearly one of the most active and influential civil rights activists of the 20th century,” William Pretzer, a curator at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, said.

Pretzer said Randolph’s prominence spanned four presidential administrations as he also worked to desegregate the Army and ban discrimination in the defense industries.

“It’s that combination thinking of civil rights and economic rights that makes Randolph kind of have his fingers on the pulse of power in Washington,” Pretzer said.

Randolph’s influence culminated with the famous March on Washington in 1963, the demonstration he co-organized. It brought a quarter of a million people to the National Mall but only after he convinced President John F. Kennedy to let it happen.

“Young folks were climbing the trees. I was one of the tree people,” Clayola Brown, president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, said. “It was also equally impressive that in the trees, there were people of all color – black, white, brown, Native Americans – who just wanted to be there.”

That’s where Brown first heard Randolph speak. He stressed the importance of freedom and jobs for all Americans. 

“Broke is broke,” Brown said. “The only color that matters in that kind of a discussion is green.”

However, the speech everyone remembers from that day is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

“Randolph wanted an opportunity to let the nation see who he was and to let young people see they were represented in the fight for freedom and justice and jobs and all the rest,” Brown said. “That’s the kind of person Randolph was. He was interested not in self ingratiation but in the movement itself.”

During his lifetime, many recognized the contributions Randolph made to the country, including President Lyndon B. Johnson, who awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But today, very few Americans know the name Asa Philip Randolph.

“He’s another one of those untold stories or at least under-recognized individuals in American history,” Pretzer said. “Americans have become very comfortable with a very simplistic narrative about the founding and the development of the United States and we’re uncomfortable trying to weave together a set of sometimes contradictory visions for the future. And yet those contradictory strategies and tactics toward achieving the American values have always been there.”

Just like Pretzer and Brown, the monument in Union Station helps to keep Randolph’s legacy alive as crowds continue to rush by.

“I would urge folks to slow down every now and then and take a real look,” Brown said. “Till the day he died, he was still marching for freedom, for justice, for equality.”

The A. Philip Randolph Institute is a nonprofit that educates the nation’s youth about the civil rights legacy in D.C. and current issues important to their communities like health care and schools.

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