Norman Hill and Velma Murphy Hill began their careers in the civil rights movement in the late 1950s in Chicago, where they met and married. A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin acted as their mentors through every major event in the fight for civil rights. Below, the Hills reflect on the organizing principles that drove their mentors’ activism and struggle.
More than a year into a national reckoning over racism, two heroes in the struggle for racial justice have received little national attention. A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin were mentor and student, friends and colleagues—eventually, their relationship was like father and son. They were two giants who contributed greatly to the advancement of civil and human rights, economic justice, and coalition politics for the democratization of America. Although younger generations are often unaware of their contributions, it is on their shoulders that today’s activists stand.
Five principles animated their lives of struggle and achievement.
Both Randolph and Rustin were committed to self-liberation. For them, that meant that any group that is mistreated or oppressed, that is treated unfairly and unjustly, that is discriminated against, should challenge the status quo. In short, they asked, “If you don’t fight for yourself, who will?”
Raised in segregated Jacksonville, Florida, A. Philip Randolph took that self-liberating principle, learned from his parents, to New York. He organized Black hotel workers, established a trade union and a socialist newspaper, The Messenger, and then headed the effort to organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first major union with Black leadership. A twelve-year struggle for recognition and full membership in the American Federation of Labor, plus a union contract with the Pullman Company, established the union as the nation’s strongest mass Black organization. It lifted tens of thousands of workers from poverty; offered educational opportunities to their children; and provided local bases for civil rights and labor rights struggles, from Chicago to Oakland. As the Brotherhood’s national leader, Randolph made the union “the advance guard” (as he later called it) of a sweeping campaign for racial equality that began with the goal of integrating the labor movement and led to the passage of national civil rights legislation.
Bayard Rustin, raised by his Quaker grandmother in a small town in Pennsylvania, took the principle of self-liberation from his upbringing and faith to a life of protest for equality. A pacifist and early practitioner of nonviolent resistance, he led the first “freedom ride” on interstate transportation to the South in 1947 as an organizer for the interracial Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). Later rejected by the fellowship for his homosexuality, Rustin was welcomed by Randolph, who tasked him with organizing support in the North for the emerging civil rights movement in the South. One assignment was to go to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 to aid the bus boycott led by Martin Luther King Jr. He organized the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington, D.C. (when Dr. King made his “Give Us the Ballot” speech) in order to press the Eisenhower administration to implement the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision ending segregation in public education. This was followed by Youth Marches for Integrated Schools in 1958 and 1959.
In between, Rustin developed the plan for Dr. King to create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but there, too, his homosexuality meant rejection. (In the 1980s, Rustin expressed the same self-liberation principle in standing up for gay rights.) The most important of Randolph’s assignments, though, was when he asked Rustin organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Mass Action and Nonviolence
Randolph and Rustin’s commitments to nonviolence and mass action were interrelated principles that gave success to actions for Black self-liberation. Mass actions—the picket line, the boycott, the march—were organized by the mistreated and their allies, regardless of education level or social and economic status, for the purpose of confronting key decision–makers and demanding real change. Nonviolence did not just mean passive non-resistance (a tactic) but rather an integral principle for self-liberating actions geared toward achieving major goals. Randolph argued that violence was self-defeating for any minority seeking redress of grievances from the majority. Its use generally led to greater oppression, not liberation. And while individual or local action can gain attention—even notoriety—only collective, mass action can achieve goals for overcoming inequality and injustice or improving social and economic conditions.
Randolph used the strike and the threat of a strike to win recognition and gain a contract for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. With the Brotherhood as a base, Randolph adopted a bold mass action: the initial 1941 March on Washington. As the organization of the March proceeded, the prospect of masses of unemployed Black workers marching on the capital forced Roosevelt’s reluctant hand to sign an executive order banning discrimination in the burgeoning defense industries’ federal contracts. Randolph kept the March on Washington Movement as a tool—and the threat of mass protest in reserve—to press for the successful implementation of Executive Order 8802 through the Fair Employment Practices Committee structure (leading to hundreds of thousands of jobs and expanded union membership for Black workers). He later used the MOW Movement to pressure President Truman to desegregate the armed forces. Randolph articulated his basic principles in the first call to March on Washington:
[N]othing counts but pressure, more pressure, and still more pressure, through the tactic and strategy of broad, organized, aggressive mass action behind the vital and important issues of the Negro.
Rustin brought the principles of nonviolence and mass action to Montgomery to aid Dr. King and others as they undertook what became a year-long bus boycott. Rustin helped develop a private transportation system to allow people to get to their jobs, communications for organization and maintaining unity, and promoted the abandonment of weapons for self-defense in favor of joint nonviolent resistance. These principles were adopted by Dr. King, already inspired by the work of Black theologian Howard Thurman, and became the foundation of the modern civil rights movement.
Achieving Racial Equality and Economic Justice Through Coalition Politics
The fourth and fifth principles were interrelated. Randolph and Rustin were committed to a society in which racial equality and economic justice would prevail, not just for Blacks but for all people. They believed that full racial equality and justice could be achieved only through demands for economic equality. It was Randolph and Rustin who insisted on the broader demands of “Jobs and Justice” among the “Big Six” civil rights leaders that came together in coalition to issue the call for the 1963 March on Washington. Randolph and Rustin initiated the program for a Freedom Budget, which King and a broad coalition adopted in 1965, and pressed for its passage by the Johnson administration.
In the pursuit of racial equality and economic justice, Randolph and Rustin believed in a basic democratic principle: the necessity for a majoritarian strategy involving coalition politics. The coalition for racial and economic justice had to be broad, encompassing different faith organizations—Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim—as well as those of ethnic and minority groups. In their view, the core of the coalition was an alliance between the trade union and civil rights movements. It was on this basis that Randolph brought the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the NAACP, and the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council together to establish the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. (The Conference added many more trade unions and civil rights and religious organizations over time.)
Randolph’s insistence on a coalition between the civil rights and trade union movements meant a long struggle for integration and the adoption of equal employment opportunities. It proved a difficult task within the white-dominated American Federation of Labor. But Randolph’s many years of effort, joined by others, ultimately pushed George Meany, the president of a united AFL-CIO, to strongly support the inclusion of Title VII, or equal employment provisions, in the Civil Rights Act, and an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to enforce these conditions. Today, the trade union movement, together with the civil service and armed forces, are among the most integrated institutions in American society.
The March on Washington in 1963, which brought a quarter million people to the capital in protest for the first time in the nation’s history, wove these five principles together. Randolph and Rustin established a broad alliance uniting the major civil rights groups, religious organizations, and the trade union movement. This coalition demanded both national civil rights legislation and a living wage, fair and affordable housing, and full employment. Before Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” oration, Randolph told the marchers, “We are the advanced guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom.”
The March on Washington succeeded in building a majoritarian consensus around civil rights and voting rights legislation. But the “class dimension” of the march was never fulfilled. The goals of the Freedom Budget—full employment, living wages, and universal housing and educational opportunities—were only partially addressed by President Johnson’s War on Poverty.
Rustin and Randolph’s engagement with freedom and the class dimension are fiercely relevant sixty years later. Randolph predicted as early as 1960 that, in an age of greater and greater automation, the failure to achieve broad economic equality across all races would mean that freedom for Blacks would be stalled. Racial inequalities in employment and housing would necessarily mean the persistence of inequalities in the justice system, education, health, and other areas.
The progress hoped for in 1963—the great “moral revolution for jobs and freedom”—has been undone by a reactionary backlash. Today, however, a younger generation is building on Randolph and Rustin’s legacy—even if they don’t always know their names. The Movement for Black Lives, the Fight for $15, and Reverend William J. Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign all have roots that stretch back to these two monumental figures. It was as a result of these efforts that a multiracial coalition led by Black voters succeeded in propelling Joe Biden to electoral victory on a platform to reverse the reactionary and authoritarian politics of Donald Trump and to renew a broad agenda for achieving progressive change.
Evidence is all around us that a majority coalition now exists for racial and economic justice. As before, it can be achieved only through the nexus of civil rights and trade union struggles—expanding the right to vote and the right to union organization, integrating schools and increasing the minimum wage, ending mass incarceration and achieving full employment for all. Looking back at the radical struggles of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin points the way forward.
Norman Hill is president emeritus of the A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI), which he cofounded with Randolph and Rustin in 1965. The APRI continues its founding mission to build an alliance between the trade union and civil rights movements.
Velma Murphy Hill began her civil rights activism in 1960 as the president of the NAACP Youth Council in Chicago. She served as an assistant to the president of the United Federation of Teachers and became the American Federation of Teachers vice-president. She later worked as the Civil and Human Rights Director and the International Affairs Director for the Service Employees International Union, where she coordinated the Rustin-inspired Conference of Black South African and African-American Trade Unionists. She is a founding board member of the APRI.