Black History Month Secular Profile

As a labor leader and civil rights activist, Randolph made his secular values powerfully explicit

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The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 has become the most famous moment of the civil rights movement. Over 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to listen to civil rights leaders such as future Congressman John Lewis and then-NAACP president Roy Wilkins. Everyone remembers the brilliance of Dr. Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

But another important leader also spoke that day. His name was Asa Philip Randolph. 

Born to a minister and a seamstress in 1889, Randolph began questioning religion early in life after reading the works of Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll. By 1911, Randolph had moved to Harlem and studied at City College. In 1917, he started The Messenger with Chandler Owen, a publication dedicated to socialism with a secular vision.

The mission statement for The Messenger made this explicit: “Prayer is not one of our remedies; it depends on what one is praying for. We consider prayer nothing more than a fervent wish; consequently the merit and worth of a prayer depend upon what the fervent wish is,” read the mission statement for Randolph’s publication. 

Randolph believed that economic inequality was intertwined with racism.

Randolph believed that economic inequality was intertwined with racism. He began a career as an organizer, helping organize unions in New York and Virginia. He helped to organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and then became the organization’s first president. Randolph quickly rose in prominence to become one of the most well-known advocates for Black working-class interests in America. By 1940, he was calling for a march of “10,000 loyal Negro American citizens” on Washington in response to President Roosevelt’s refusal to issue an executive order preventing discrimination in the defense industry. It was a testament to Randolph’s influence that President Roosevelt backed down, issuing an executive order banning discrimination in the employment of defense industry workers only 6 days before the march was set to occur in 1941. Randolph later played a prominent role in the pressure campaign to push President Truman to desegregate the military in the late 1940s. 

Randolph set an example for the next generation of civil rights leaders. He played a key role as director of the 1963 March on Washington and gave the first speech of the event. “The March on Washington is not the climax of our struggle, but a new beginning not only for the Negro but for all Americans who thirst for freedom and a better life,” Randolph said during his speech. “Look for the enemies of Medicare, of higher minimum wages, of Social Security, of federal aid to education and there you will find the enemy of the Negro, the coalition of Dixiecrats and reactionary Republicans that seek to dominate the Congress.” 

What set Randolph apart from many other prominent figures in the civil rights movement was his affiliation with secularism. Randolph grew up in the church and never fully rejected the African Methodist Episcopal church. But his secular values won him the American Humanist Association’s Humanist of the Year Award in 1970. In 1978, he was a signatory to the Humanist Manifesto II. 

Randolph embodied the secular principles that humanists stand for. He was committed to social justice and the humane and just treatment of all human beings. He also showed the country that secularists can work with Christians when their goals align. That the civil rights movement was backed by many influential religious organizations and Dr. King himself was a Baptist minister was no obstacle to Randolph lending his help to further the cause of civil rights. “The merit and worth of a prayer depend upon what the fervent wish is,” and equality was a wish to be celebrated by religious and secular alike. 

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Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson is a political commentator and a political science Ph.D. candidate at American University. His primary research focus is the impact of political institutions on the racial wealth gap.