CIVIL RIGHTS PIONEER — A. Philip Randolph has been called “the father of the modern civil rights movement.” He has also been considered “the 20th century’s pre-eminent black labor leader.” Randolph was born in 1889, a minister’s son and a native of Crescent City, located about 90 miles south of Jacksonville. He grew up, though, in Jacksonville. One of his boyhood homes was on the Eastside’s Lafayette Street, between the present-day Maxwell House Coffee Plant and the Jacksonville Jaguars NFL Football team’s stadium. Now occupying the site is a parking lot for the nearby sports complex.
Randolph accomplished enough for several eminent lifetimes. He guided the efforts to desegregate the US military. Randolph also served as the principle organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, leading a bitter struggle against the Pullman Sleeping Car Company during the 1920s and 1930s. Numerous African American men toiled as railroad porters, attendants who assisted travelers on trains. They had been grossly overworked and underpaid, but Randolph succeeded in organizing them and improving their lot. His victories proved very inspirational to African Americans.
“I HAD A DREAM” — One of A. Philip Randolph’s shining moments came in 1963, when he served as the chief organizer of the March on Washington. This was the occasion for Martin Luther King’s immortal “I Had a Dream” speech. Soon after the march, an African American newspaper in Jacksonville, the Florida Star, triumphantly reported about it. The paper stated that the principle figure proved to be Randolph, the “Grand Old Man of Civil Rights.”
According to the Star, youngsters had known Randolph only as a legend, yet TV coverage of the event allowed them to see and hear Randolph give an eloquent speech. The march was his “brainchild.” The statue of the Lincoln Memorial sat nearby, and the Star thought that you could picture the eyes of the Lincoln statue twinkle as “Father Abraham” whispered to Randolph, “Well done.” As the paper noted too, one of the “young turks,” Martin Luther King, drew the loudest applause with his presentation at the glorious event.
Randolph’s many years of leadership made him a master at politics. His integrity also proved reassuring, for he didn’t give in to the bribes and perks that came his way. Randolph was dedicated to a life of giving, rather than taking or accumulating. All of these personal qualities proved important to African Americans: Randolph was able to provide invaluable guidance during the pivotal years of the 1950s and 1960s. He pulled together rival factions of African Americans and tried to keep people focused. No wonder Randolph has also called “the guiding light behind American’s nonviolent black protest movement in the 20th century.” To further bolster his efforts, Randolph could rely on support from African American railroad workers, who were endeared to their leader.
RIVER CITY HOMECOMINGS — Randolph &and his lieutenants visited Jacksonville during the Fifties and Sixties, and they stayed at the homes of various African Americans. According to the Jacksonville author Marsha Phelts, these include her aunt’s residence. Segregation closed many hotels to African American travelers, so Randolph and his party often relied on private homes when traveling the nation on business. To help pass the time on trains, Randolph played cards. He even taught Mrs. Phelts, a young girl at the time, the rules to a classic card game called “Dirty Hearts.”
When Randolph visited, Mrs. Phelts’ aunt served food fit for kings. A favorite proved to be a large, stainless steel pot filled with chitterlings, a traditional Southern meal of boiled pig intestines. Even more popular was her aunt’s seafood casserole, a delicate blend of crabmeat, lobster and shrimp, tossed with a spicy sauce.
As the only child in the crowd, Mrs. Phelts felt honored. It also seemed as if she stood in the presence of greatness, as if Randolph were a “superstar.” The leader could move mountains with his powerful conviction, erudite articulation, and rich, resonate voice. Randolph came across not like a preacher, but as a motivational speaker. Aiding in his projection was the skill gained from performing in Shakespeare’s plays.
A. Philip Randolph died in 1979. A principle street in the Eastside, Florida Avenue, has been renamed in his honor, as too a Jacksonville school. There’s not much else, however, to commemorate a local person who impacted American history so profoundly. Arguably, Randolph was the most influential person to ever come from Jacksonville.