A. Philip Randolph and the Struggle for Civil Rights

By Helgeson, Jeffrey | The Journal of Southern History, August 2012 | Go to article overview
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A. Philip Randolph and the Struggle for Civil Rights


Helgeson, Jeffrey, The Journal of Southern History


A. Philip Randolph and the Struggle for Civil Rights. By Cornelius L. Bynum. New Black Studies Series. (Urbana and other cities: University of Illinois Press, c. 2010. Pp. [xx], 244. Paper, $25.00, ISBN 978-0-25207764-7; cloth, $75.00, ISBN 978-0-252-03575-3.)

Cornelius L. Bynum has written an intriguing intellectual history of A. Philip Randolph's career as a pioneering labor and civil rights leader. Drawing on secondary sources, interviews completed with Randolph in the 1970s, and public writings and speeches by Randolph and his cohort of black leaders, Bynum follows the development of Randolph's ideas from his childhood in Jim Crow Florida through the 1940s. Bynum confirms the standard view that Randolph had a profound influence on the modem civil rights movement, but more than other historians have done, Bynum argues for the radicalism of Randolph's vision of democracy.

Randolph's historical reputation is mixed. He is best known for the successful fight to establish the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters within the American Federation of Labor, the battle to end discrimination in World War II-era defense industries, and the effort to desegregate the U.S. military. Each of these efforts was limited in effect, and each was shaped by Randolph's anticommunism. Historians have argued that Randolph placed too much importance on gaining access to unions, government institutions, and the political process and that he helped exclude radicals from labor and civil rights struggles. But the description of "Randolph's faith in notions of justice and fair play," Bynum insists, "is misplaced. Such idealism does not at all fit with the harsh criticism that he leveled at the nation, the American labor movement, and white Americans" (p. 125). To Bynum, Randolph was not an overly optimistic liberal whose anticommunism is cause for regret.

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