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“Our Reason for Being”: A. Philip Randolph Embraces Socialism

Socialism , although less important in the African-American community than growing concepts of racial militancy, was one of the many ideologies debated by black Americans in the 1920s. A. Philip Randolph, who in 1925 organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was perhaps the leading black proponent of socialism as the only remedy for the plight of African Americans. In this March 1919 editorial in the Messenger, the radical newspaper that would later become the voice of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Randolph rejected the “leadership” of organizations such as the NAACP. Instead, he urged black and white workers to unite, form unions, and embrace socialism in order to win political gains and economic advancement.

First, as workers, black and white, we all have one common interest, viz., the getting of more wages, shorter hours, and better working conditions.

Black and white workers should combine for no other reason than that for which individual workers should combine, viz., to increase their bargaining power, which will enable them to get their demands.

Second, the history of the labor movement in America proves that the employing class recognize no race lines. They will exploit a white man as readily as a black man. They will exploit women as readily as men. They will even go to the extent of coining the labor, blood and suffering of children into dollars. The introduction of women and children into the factories proves that capitalists are only concerned with profits and that they will exploit any race or class in order to make profits, whether they be black or white men, black or white women or black or white children.

Third, it is apparent that every Negro worker or non-union man is a potential scab upon white union men and black union men.

Fourth, self-interest is the only principle upon which individuals or groups will act if they are sane. Thus, it is idle and vain to hope or expect Negro workers, out of work and who receive less wages when at work than white workers, to refuse to scab upon white workers when an opportunity presents itself.

Men will always seek to improve their conditions. When colored workers, as scabs, accept the wages against which white workers strike, they (the Negro workers) have definitely improved their conditions.

That is the only reason why colored workers scab upon white workers or why non-union white men scab upon white union men.

Every member, which is a part of the industrial machinery, must be organized, if labor would win its demands. Organized labor cannot afford to ignore any labor factor of production which organized capital does not ignore.

Fifth, if the employers can keep the white and black dogs, on account of race prejudice, fighting over a bone; the yellow capitalist dog will get away with the bone—the bone of profits. No union man’s standard of living is safe so long as there is a group of men or women who may be used as scabs and whose standard of living is lower.

The combination of black and white workers will be a powerful lesson to the capitalists of the solidarity of labor. It will show that labor, black and white, is conscious of its interests and power. This will prove that unions are not based upon race lines, but upon class lines. This will serve to convert a class of workers, which has been used by the capitalist class to defeat organized labor, into an ardent, class conscious, intelligent, militant group.

Sixth: The Industrial Workers of the World commonly termed the I. W. W. draw no race, creed, color or sex line in their organization. They are making a desperate effort to get the colored men into the One Big Union. The Negroes are at least giving them a hand. With the Industrial Workers Organization already numbering 800,000, to augment it with a million and a half or two million Negroes, would make it fairly rival the American Federation of Labor. This may still be done anyhow and the reactionaries of this country, together with Samuel Gompers, the reactionary President of the American Federation of Labor, desire to hold back this trend of Negro labor radicalism. . . .

Eighth: The New York World, the mouth piece of the present administration, and also a plutocratic mouth piece, says in its issue of June 4, 1919, "The radical forces in New York City have recently embarked on a great new field of revolutionary endeavor, the education through agitation of the southern Negro into the mysteries and desirability of revolutionary Bolshevism. There are several different powerful forces in N.Y. City behind this move. The chief established propaganda is being distributed through The Messenger, which styles itself—“The only magazine of scientific radicalism in the world, published by Negroes.” With the exception of The Liberator, it is the most radical journal printed in the U. S." . . .

The foregoing comments from such powerful organs as The Providence Sunday Journal, The New York Sunday World, The National Circle Federation Review and the Union League Club of New York, followed by action of the Legislature of the State of New York—demonstrates how powerful is the influence of a well written, logical publication, fighting for the interests of twelve million Negroes in particular and the working masses in general. These are the real reasons why the American Federation of Labor decided to lay aside its infamous color line. There is no change of heart on the part of the Federation, but it is acting under the influence of fear. There is a new leadership for Negro workers. It is a leadership of uncompromising manhood. It is not asking for a half loaf but for the whole loaf. It is insistent upon the Negro workers exacting justice, both from the white labor unions and from the capitalists or employers.

The Negroes who will benefit from this decision are indebted first to themselves and their organized power, which made them dangerous. Second, to the radical agitation carried on by The Messenger; and third, to the fine spirit of welcome shown by the Industrial Workers of the World, whose rapid growth and increasing power the American Federation of Labor fears. These old line Negro political fossils know nothing of the Labor Movement, do not believe in labor unions at all, and have never taken any active steps to encourage such organizations. We make this statement calmly, coolly and with a reasonable reserve. The very thing which they are fighting is one of the chief factors in securing for Negroes their rights. That is Bolshevism. The capitalists of this country are so afraid that Negroes will become Bolshevists that they are willing to offer them almost anything to hold them away from the radical movement. Nobody buys pebbles which may be picked up on the beach, but diamonds sell high. The old line Negro leaders have no power to bargain, because it is known that they are Republicans politically and job-hunting, me-too-boss-hat-in-hand-Negroes, industrially. Booker Washington and all of them have simply advocated the Negroes get more work. The editors of The Messenger are not interested in Negroes getting more work. Negroes have too much work already. What we want Negroes to get is less work and more wages, with more leisure for study and recreation.

Our type of agitation has really won for Negroes such as concessions as were granted by the American Federation of Labor and we are by no means too sanguine over the possibilities of the sop which was granted. It may be like the Constitution of the United States-good in parts, but badly executed. We shall have to await the logic of events. In the meantime, we urge the Negro labor unions to increase their radicalism, to speed up their organization, to steer clear of the Negro leaders and to thank nobody but themselves for what they have gained. In organization there is strength; and whenever Negroes or anybody else make organized demands, their call will be heeded.

Source: A. Philip Randolph, “Our Reason for Being,” Messenger, August 1919, 11–12.

See Also:Elise Johnson McDougald on "The Double Task: The Struggle of Negro Women for Sex and Race Emancipation"
"The New Negro": "When He's Hit, He Hits Back!"
"Let Us Reason Together": W. E. B. Du Bois Defends Black Resistance