“We are creatures of history, for every historical epoch has its roots in a preceding epoch. The black militants of today are standing upon the shoulders of the New Negro radicals of my day, the twenties, thirties, and forties. We stood upon the shoulders of the civil rights fighters of the Reconstruction era, and they stood upon the shoulders of the black abolitionists. These are the interconnections of history, and they play their role in the course of development.”—A. Philip Randolph
On this day in August in 1925, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) came into existence when 500 porters met in Harlem, renewing their union organizing efforts. “During this meeting, they secretly launched their campaign, choosing [A. Philip] Randolph, not employed by Pullman and thus beyond retaliation, to lead the effort. The union chose a motto to sum up their resentment over the working conditions: ‘Fight or Be Slaves.’”
The following is from the entry, “Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (1925–1978),” written by Daren Salter for BlackPast.org (‘The Online Reference Guide to African American History’):
“The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) was a labor union organized by African American employees of the Pullman Company in August 1925 and led by A. Philip Randolph and Milton P. Webster. Over the next twelve years, the BSCP fought a three-front battle against the Pullman Company, the American Federation of Labor, and the anti-union, pro-Pullman sentiments of the majority of the black community. Largely successful on each front, the BCSP is a significant institution in both the labor and civil rights history of the twentieth century United States.
The BSCP faced long odds in 1925. Despite its charismatic leadership, the union attracted only a small number of rank and file workers and at no point before 1937 did it enroll a majority of porters. Most black leaders outside the organization distrusted labor unions and, moreover, viewed George Pullman, whose company provided jobs, relatively high incomes, and a modicum of services to black employees, as an important ally of the black community, a reputation Pullman assiduously exploited in his effort to undermine the nascent union. Meanwhile, while the AFL granted federal-local status to individual BSCP locals, it refused to charter the all-black union as a full-fledged international. [….]
Transforming his newspaper, the Messenger, into a propaganda vehicle for the BSCP and tirelessly campaigning on behalf of the union, over time Randolph convinced black leaders, clergymen, and newspaper editors that Pullman’s paternalism masked what was in fact a servile position for blacks within the company and a subtle recapitulation of the master-slave relationship. In the process, the BSCP became both a vehicle and a symbol of black advancement and, according to one historian, helped facilitate the ‘rise of protest politics in black America.’
On the labor front, the BSCP survived an aborted strike in 1928 and a precipitous drop in membership due to company opposition and the hardship of the Great Depression. A favorable turn in the political climate brought about by the New Deal, combined with the persistence of union leaders and members finally forced the company to recognize the BSCP in 1935. The AFL granted the BSCP an international charter that same year and, after protracted negotiations, the union won its first contract in 1937. Randolph used the BSCP and his own position in the AFL-CIO leadership as a wedge for breaking down racial segregation in the American labor movement. The BSCP also remained a source of inspiration and activism in African American communities, providing a training ground for future civil rights leaders like C.L. Dellums, E.D. Nixon, and of course Randolph himself.” [….]
- Allen, Robert. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters: C. L. Dellums and the Fight for Fair Treatment and Civil Rights. Paradigm Publishers, 2015.
- Anderson, Jervis. A. Philip Randolph: A Biographical Portrait. University of California Press edition, 1986 (Harcourt Brace, 1973).
- Arneson, Eric. Brotherhoods of Color: Black Railroad Workers and the Struggle for Equality. Harvard University Press, 2000.
- Bates, Beth Tompkins. Pullman Porters and the Rise of Protest Politics in Black America, 1925–1945. University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
- Berman, Edward. “The Pullman Porters Win,” The Nation, August 21, 1935. http://newdeal.feri.org/nation/na35217.htm
- Bynum, Cornelius L. A. Philip Randolph and the Struggle for Civil Rights. University of Illinois Press, 2010.
- Harris, William H. Keeping the Faith: A. Philip Randolph, Milton P. Webster, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, 1925-1937. University of Illinois Press, 1977.
- Hughes, Lyn. An Anthology of Respect: The Pullman Porters National Historic Registry. Outskirts Press, 2008.
- Pfeffer, Paula F. A. Philip Randolph, Pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement. Louisiana State University Press, 1990.
- Santino, Jack. Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle: Stories of Black Pullman Porters. University of Illinois Press, 1989.
- Taylor, Cynthia. A. Philip Randolph: The Religious Journey of an African American Labor Leader. New York University Press, 2006.
- Tye, Larry. Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class. Macmillan, 2005.