Q & A with Cynthia Taylor

Cynthia Taylor, Assistant Professor of religion and history, is noted for her research focused on A. Philip Randolph, the labor leader and pioneer of the civil rights movements who 50 years ago was the chief architect of the 1963 March on Washington. On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Taylor reflects on Randolph’s legacy.

In her 2006 book, A. Philip Randolph: The Religious Journey of an African American Labor Leader, Taylor notes that while it was Rev. Martin Luther King who became known as the face of the march, Randolph’s tireless advocacy for nonviolent protest methods truly defined the civil rights movement.

“Throughout his 90 years, Randolph encompassed every critical moment in black history, from the end of reconstruction to the 1963 March on Washington,” Taylor says.

On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Taylor reflects on Randolph’s legacy.

 

How did you get interested in the story of A. Philip Randolph?

Throughout my graduate studies, I was interested in the intersection between religious culture and political activism. As a doctoral student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, I became interested in Randolph while studying the response of black churches to the original March on Washington Movement in the 1940s.

What initially struck me about Randolph was that scholarship has traditionally portrayed him as an atheist and anti-religious. However, the more I learned about his activism, I started to find evidence that this was not true. He was a religious man with deep African Methodist roots who embraced a wide spectrum of liberal Protestant beliefs. Randolph successfully inspired and organized progressive ministers and their congregations to fight the Jim Crow system of segregation from the 1920s through the 1970s. Randolph saw his role as an educator teaching African Americans about the advantages of having and organizing labor unions of their own. He was a socialist at a time when being a socialist was seen as being un-American. So, being labeled an “atheist” in Randolph’s case could be interpreted as a tactic used by anti-union individuals and groups opposed to his union activism and as a successful way to throw suspicion on Randolph’s character and motivations.

 

Your early research focused on Randolph’s Plans for an organized March on Washington in the 1940s. Why did this first march never take place?

In 1941, Randolph first proposed a March on Washington. The original March was Randolph's early attempt to form a civil rights organization to protest how African Americans were shut out from economic opportunities created by the early 1940s. A few days before the threatened march (planned for July 1, 1941), President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 establishing the President's Committee on Fair Employment Practices (FEPC), which sponsored public hearings on employment discrimination during World War II.  The order opened up the industrial wartime factories and jobs for African Americans, disabled people and eventually women. This legislation started the fair employment practices that remain today. So, Randolph had reached his objective through negotiation rather than by an organized march.  Eventually, Randolph did achieve a massive civil rights demonstration by planning the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that is remembered today primarily for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

 

Many view Martin Luther King as the face of the 1963 March. What was Randolph’s role?

There is historical amnesia about early civil rights leaders like A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin because of the spotlight on Martin Luther King. It was Randolph and his influential connections to other civil rights organizers and leaders who planned, organized, and made the march possible. Randolph experimented with non-violent civil disobedience in his own civil rights campaigns years before Martin Luther King did. It was Randolph's generation of civil rights activists that laid the groundwork that enabled King and his generation to reap the rewards of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.

 

How did Randolph see the role of religion in the labor movement and the Civil Rights movement?

Since the mid-1920s, when he began to actively organize the Pullman porters into their own trade union, Randolph recognized how central it was to gain the support of all African American religious communities behind his labor activism. He understood how religious communities were organized into churches and led by dynamic preachers chosen by the very congregations they led.

By the 1950s, the black church increasingly was taking a stand for social justice. The 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage, in which Randolph served as a key organizer, was the first civil rights demonstration in which black religious communities and churches joined in public partnership with a secular civil rights organization, the NAACP, and with black labor organizations. Martin Luther King represented that new kind of progressive black minister who was willing to take a political stance.

 

How are the protests of today both similar and different than the activism of the 1960s?

They are similar in that Trayvon Martin case has been a real hot-button issue for many young activists in much the same way the Emmett Till Case of the mid 1950s was for young men like Martin Luther King; it is the same issues of social injustice and social inequality that always come from a strong protest voice of black Americans. However, in many ways protests have moved from streets and famous monuments (Lincoln Memorial) to statehouses and Facebook and Twitter. Will there be mass gatherings which require massive logistical organization like the 1963 March at the Lincoln Memorial? Or will protest be organized technologically around new technological innovations just mentioned?

Although the old Jim Crow political era of segregated lunch counters and bathrooms does not exist, the hot-button issues of today are no less de-humanizing: racial profiling, police harassment, and immigration and women’s issues form a global scale.

 

What is the legacy of the 1963 March on Washington – and of A. Philip Randolph.

Many people are still fighting for equal rights. Randolph was focusing on equal rights based on race, but out of this movement came the opening up of gay rights, women’s rights, and human rights. Randolph is a man we can remember with absolute admiration and gratitude. It is through actions of people like Randolph that we have the freedoms we enjoy today.