The first Monday of September marks the end of summer every year in the US. It’s also the day workers’ rights advocates pushed to formally recognize the achievement and contributions of American laborers.
The holiday was first celebrated in the early 1880s by individual states before getting its national holiday title in 1894. At the time, Black people in the US were just years separated from slavery, in the throes of the Reconstruction Era, and battling ongoing racial injustice in every aspect of life, especially the labor market. After being enslaved for generations, Black people fought –– and continue the fight –– to earn equal pay, workers’ rights, and more.
One Black figure leading the way was Asa Philip Randolph who, in 1925, began a decade-long crusade leading the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), one of the nation’s first Black labor unions. The organization brought labor union ideals to thousands of Black households, and in 1935, became the first Black-led labor organization certified by the American Federation of Labor as an exclusive collective bargaining agent.
The BSCP had a membership of upwards of 18,000 Black railway workers of the Pullman Company and fought against labor inequality, unfair wages, and poor working conditions carried out by the Pullman Company which had exploited the situation of newly freed Black people in search of employment opportunities.
Randolph was a native of Florida and attended the Cookman Institute, which is present-day Bethune-Cookman University. He also became a member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Incorporated and went on to organize the 1941 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom which is credited with inspiring the nonviolent protesting principles of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Randolph’s work also included leading mass protests against the segregation of the nation’s military following the passage of the Selective Service Act of 1947. His leadership and influence made its way to the White House a year later on July 26, 1948 as President Harry Truman, who was up for reelection at the time and needed the votes of young Black men, signed an executive order to end racial discrimination in the armed forces.
In a nod of reverence, the next generation of civil rights leaders made Randolph the chair of the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr made his famous “I Have A Dream Speech.”
Randolph continued his life’s work throughout the 60s, becoming a founder of the Negro American Labor Council and serving as its president from 1960 to 1966. In 1968, Randolph retired as the BSCP president and continued working to bring fair labor practices to Black Americans at the A. Philip Randolph Institute.
Randolph passed away at the age of 90 on May 16, 1979.
To learn more about the BSCP, and the work of A. Philip Randolph, click here.