What A. Philip Randolph Knew About Jobs and Freedom

I keep a running list of ideas and observations that could be used for columns or essays, and this week, my original plan was to write about A. Philip Randolph, the labor leader and civil rights activist whose work in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s was crucial to the growth and success of the civil rights movement. He had a starring role at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which itself was the culmination of an effort Randolph had begun in 1941 with his fellow activist Bayard Rustin and other allies in the civil rights and labor movements.

I couldn’t make the column work — these things happen! — but I still want to share some of the material, both because it’s intrinsically interesting and because it illustrates a point I have made, and will continue to make, in my work for The Times.

To the extent that Randolph is still known to the public, it is as one of the more moderate leaders of the civil rights movement, a member of the old guard in contrast to younger leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But Randolph was at one point a young man, and as a young man, he was a fierce and radical proponent of economic justice as the foundation for civil rights and democratic equality.

You can see much of this in Randolph’s writing for The Messenger, an independent magazine he co-founded in 1917 with assistance from the Socialist Party (and the help of his wife, Lucille Campbell Green), which was still a significant force in American politics at the time. For example, in a 1919 piece, “Lynching: Capitalism Its Cause; Socialism Its Cure,” Randolph condemns “the economic arrangement in the South” as the “fundamental cause of race prejudice, which is the fuse that causes the magazine of capitalism to explode into race conflicts.” He blasts “prejudice as the chief weapon in the South which enables the capitalists to exploit both races” and warns that in actuality “capitalism knows no color line” and that capitalists “will coin the blood, sweat and suffering of white women and white children or black women and black children into dollars and dividends.”

A. Philip Randolph, circa 1937.Credit…MPI/Getty Images

In one of Randolph’s more arresting formulations, found in a 1926 address, “The Negro Faces the Future,” delivered not long after he was elected president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, he connects the Black experience of slavery and discrimination to the entire class system: “From the beginning of the systematic trade in men up to the present moment, the Negro is the one outstanding unpaid worker in the modern world,” Randolph said.

“To the end of correcting this evil,” he continued, “the Negro’s next gift to America will be in economic democracy” and “demonstrating the virtue of the principle of collective bargaining.”

One of the points I’ve tried to make in my column and in this newsletter is that there are multiple and competing traditions of freedom in American society and that one of the most powerful is an egalitarian vision that makes economic security the foundation of democratic self-rule. A related point I hope to explore in detail this year is that by virtue of the largely shared experience of slavery and peonage, the African American political tradition is especially attuned to the vital importance of economic equality to building a truly democratic society.

Here, I’ll let Randolph have the final word: “The insistent cry for freedom on the part of the Negro has kept the American people face to face with the fact that a democracy has not fulfilled its highest mission so long as there are people in the country, black or white, who cannot participate in the affairs of government, industry or society generally as free, intelligent human beings.”

What I Wrote

Because Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I didn’t have a Tuesday column. But my Friday column was an argument for why President Biden should just say that the debt limit is unconstitutional and thus invalid.

And on the latest episode of my podcast with John Ganz, we discussed the 1994 alien invasion thriller “Puppet Masters.”

Now Reading

Melinda Cooper on the anti-abortion movement for Dissent.

Jill Lepore on the Jan. 6 committee report for The New Yorker.

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins in conversation with the historian Michael Sonenscher on the history of capitalism for The Nation.

Jake Bittle on the future of climate activism for The Drift.

An excerpt from “Making the Revolution Global” by Theo Williams on the connections between Black radicalism and the British socialist movement.

Photo of the Week

Credit…Jamelle Bouie

I took this photo in the Belmont neighborhood of Charlottesville, Va., almost five years ago using a large-format film camera. I’ve been meaning to take another photo using color film, just to see how the scene has changed.

Now Eating: Sake-Steamed Chicken With Ginger and Scallions

I know that I shared a steamed fish recipe with you last week. Well, now I’m sharing a steamed chicken recipe, and I have to say, it’s pretty great. Even with the minimal seasonings, the chicken is moist and flavorful, and the ponzu-esque sauce is delicious. Serve with steamed rice. Recipe comes from The New York Times Cooking Section.


  • 1½ cups dry sake

  • 1 3½ pound chicken, rinsed and patted dry

  • Kosher salt

  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce

  • 2 tablespoons orange juice

  • 2 teaspoons rice vinegar

  • 1½ teaspoons lemon juice

  • 1½ teaspoons mirin or sweet sherry

  • 1 tablespoon chopped ginger root

  • 1 large garlic clove, minced

  • 3 thinly sliced scallions

  • 2 tablespoons sesame seeds, preferably black


Place a steamer basket in the bottom of a large stockpot. Pour in equal amounts of sake and water, enough to reach the bottom of the steamer basket. Bring to a boil.

Generously salt the chicken inside and out; set breast side up in the steamer basket. Reduce the heat to low and cover. Steam the chicken until the juices run clear when pierced with a knife, about 1 to 1½ hours. Turn off the heat and allow to cool for about 20 minutes.

To prepare the sauce, in a small bowl whisk together the soy sauce, orange juice, rice vinegar, lemon juice, mirin, ginger and garlic.

Remove the chicken from the pot and place on a large cutting board; carve and set pieces on a platter. Spoon some of the sauce over the meat and sprinkle with scallions and sesame seeds. Serve extra sauce on the side for dipping.

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