Two of the Big Six: John Lewis and A. Philip Randolph #blacklivesmatter

As I thought about who to do next for our Black Lives Matter Series I realized I should do John Lewis since he passed away this weekend. He was last of the Big Six leaders of the Civil Rights Movement to die. As I did my research I realized that A. Philip Randolph was as well so today I am going to share about both of them. The Big Six were Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young. They were instrumental in the planning of the March on Washington in 1963. 

The "Big Six" Civil Rights Leaders (l to r) John Lewis, Whitney Young Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer Jr., and Roy Wilkins. Hulton Archive/Getty Images (Source)

 A. Philip Randolph

A Philip Randolph, photographed on the day of the March on Washington, 1963. Photograph by Rowland Scherman
A. Philip Randolph on the Day of the March on Washington, D.C. by Rowland Scherman / Public domain

Asa Philip Randolph was born on April 15, 1889 in Crescent City, Florida.  His parents were Rev. James and Elizabeth Robinson Randolph. James was a Methodist minister. Elizabeth was a seamstress. Both of his parents believed in equal rights for Blacks and really everyone and believed strongly in education. The family moved to Jacksonville, Florida in 1891. This is where A. Philip grew up. He attended Cookman Institute, one of the first institutions of higher education for Blacks. He was valedictorian at his graduation in 1907. After Cookman he moved to Harlem in New York City. He took some classes at City College while contemplating whether to become an actor. 

In 1912 he and Chandler Owen founded Brotherhood of Labor, an employment agency as a means of organizing Black workers. A. Philip organized a rally to protest the poor living conditions while he was a waiter on a coastal steamship. In 1913 he married Lucille Green. She was a widow and had graduated from Howard University. She was a shop entrepreneur and earned enough money to support them both. 

A. Philip founded Ye Friends of Shakespeare where he did some acting. In 1917 he and Chandler founded a political magazine called The Messenger. The articles in the magazine included demands for more Blacks in the armed forces and war industry as well as higher wages. A. Philip also tried to unionize the Black shipyard workers in Virginia and elevator operators in New York. After World War I ended, he became a lecturer at Rand School of Social Science. In the early 1920's he ran for offices in the New York state government but lost. He was associated with the Socialist Party and ran on that ticket. During the Red Scare he was on many government watchlists but always stayed away from Communism. 

He truly believed that unions were the best tool for Blacks to improve their lives. In 1925 he founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and served as the president. He fought to have the Brotherhood officially included in the American Federation of Labor which did not include Black unions at the time. He fought often with Pullman Company which was the biggest employer of Blacks. In 1937 the Brotherhood gained acceptance into the American Federation of Labor making it the first Black union in the United States but he withdrew the membership the following year to protest the discrimination that still existed in the organization. 

In the 1940s he used massed demonstrations to protest the racism in the war industries. He had planned a March on Washington but cancelled it when President Franklin D. Roosevelt banned racial discrimination at government defense factories and established the first Fair Employment Practices Committee. After World War II A. Philips organized the League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation. The action of this group eventually got President Harry S. Truman to end military segregation.  

In 1955 he became the vice president of the AFL-CIO. The American Federation of Labor merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations. He continued to fight systematic racism in the organization. In 1959 he formed the Negro Labor Council. He began to expand out to other civil rights and began to organize youth marches for integrated schools. 

In 1963 he was one of the major organizers of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedoms. He spoke that day and shared the podium with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and many of the other organizers. His wife Lucille had died shortly before the march. He was among the handful of organizers (along with Dr. King and John Lewis) who met with President John F. Kennedy that day.

Civil rights leaders meet with President John F. Kennedy2
Civil Rights Leaders Meet with President John F. Kennedy After March on Washington by Leffler, Warren K., photographer / Public domain From left to right: Willard Wirtz (Secretary of Labor); Floyd McKissick (CORE); Mathew Ahmann (National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice); Whitney Young (National Urban League); Martin Luther King, Jr. (SCLC); John Lewis (SNCC); Rabbi Joachim Prinz (American Jewish Congress); A. Philip Randolph, with Reverend Eugene Carson Blake partially visible behind him; President John F. KennedyWalter Reuther (labor leader), with Vice President Lyndon A. Johnson partially visible behind him; and Roy Wilkins (NAACP).
The following year President Lyndon Johnson presented A. Philip Randolph with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work with Civil Rights.  He co-founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute with Bayard Rustin. It was to study the causes of poverty. In 1965 he proposed "Freedom Budget for All Americans" at a White House conference to eliminate poverty in America. 

In 1968 he retired from being president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and from public life. After being mugged by three assailants he moved to Chelsea, a New York City neighborhood. He spent the next few years writing his autobiography until his health forced him to stop. He died in his bed at home on May 16, 1979 at the age of 90.

To teach your kids about A. Philip Randolph, check out these books that I found.

John Lewis

John Lewis official portrait 2003
John Lewis United States House of Representatives / Public domain
John Lewis was born on February 21, 1940 outside of Troy, Alabama. His parents were sharecroppers. He grew up in segregated schools in Alabama and was highly motivated by the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a boy. He was disappointed when the 1954 Brown versus the Board of Education Supreme Court decision did not affect his schooling. He made a decision to become part of the Civil Rights Movement and focused his life on progressive social movements and human rights struggles in the United States.  

He attended Fisk University and American Baptist Theological Seminary both in Nashville, Tennessee. While there he organized lunch counter sit-ins. He was arrested during these protests which upset his mother, but he continued his work to end segregation. He volunteered on to be a Freedom Rider. He would sit in white only seats on buses across the South. He was often arrested and/or beaten for this. He was among the thirteen original Freedom Riders.

From 1963 to 1966 he was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He helped form this committee. It was responsible for much of the student involvement, sit-ins, and protests in the Civil Rights Movement. It was in 1963 that he was dubbed one of the Big Six. He helped plan and spoke at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He was actually told to tone down his speech to please the other organizers. He apparently wanted to tell President John F. Kennedy that he was doing too little, too late. At 23 he was the youngest speaker at the March. He declared at it, "We all recognize the fact that if any radical social, political and economic changes are to take place in our society, the people, the masses, must bring them about." 

In 1964 the Civil Rights Act became law but it did not ease the process of Blacks voting in the South. On March 17, 1965, with Hosea Williams, James led a student march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. After crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge the state police beat the protestors. James had a skull fracture from this beating. The beating was recorded and the photos and video shared across the country. It became known as Bloody Sunday. It sped up the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. 
Infobox collage for Selma to Montgomery marches
Selma to Montgomery March Collage by User:Mitchumch / Public domain

In 1966 John left the SNCC. He continued to work to enfranchise minorities. In 1970 he became the director of the Voter Education Project. His work there included help register millions of minority voters. In 1968 he married Lillian Miles. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed John to direct more than 250,000 volunteers in ACTION, the federal volunteer agency. 

In 1981 he ran for and won a seat on the Atlanta City Council. In 1986 he was elected to represent Georgia in the House of Representatives. Until he died on July 17th, he represented Georgia's 5th District. While in Congress he called for health care reform, measures to fight poverty and improvements for education. On June 22, 2016, John led a Democrat sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives to force reform on gun control. He was on the House Ways and Mean Committee and chairman of its subcommittee on oversight.  

He has received many awards and recognitions. President Barrack Obama presented him with the Medal of Freedom. When Barrack Obama won the presidency, John stated, "When we were organizing voter-registration drives, going on the Freedom Rides, sitting in, coming here to Washington for the first time, getting arrested, going to jail, being beaten, I never thought — I never dreamed — of the possibility that an African American would one day be elected president of the United States." He has also co-authored a trilogy of graphic novels for the younger generation. March 3, the third book, won the National Book Award, becoming the first graphic novel to receive this award.

He saw the protests of George Floyd's death a continuation of his work. His illness left him to watch from the sidelines instead of getting involved. 

In December 2019, John announced he had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He died July 17, 2020. He is survived by his son, John Miles Lewis.

To teach your kids more about John Lewis, please check out these books I found including the first book in the trilogy he co-authored.