The day Asa Randolph passed a torch in the civil rights movement

Justifiably, Martin Luther King Jr., is getting the bulk of the attention on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

But he wasn’t the guiding force behind it. That distinction belongs to a civil rights leader who gets scant attention anymore — A. Philip Randolph, whose fight for civil rights began during World War I when he tried to organize shipyard workers in Virginia and elevator operators in New York City.

In the ’20s he organized Pullman train car porters. The company was a major employer of African Americans. The porters had to work 400 hours a month or 11,000 miles. Organizing to the point where the company finally relented and offered a decent wage took more than 10 years.

Fifty years ago today, he spoke before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He said there can be no end to racism before there is economic equality.

And so we have taken our struggle into the streets as the labor movement took its struggle into the streets, as Jesus Christ led the multitude through the streets of Judea. The plain and simple fact is that until we went into the streets the federal government was indifferent to our demands. It was not until the streets and jails of Birmingham were filled that Congress began to think about civil rights legislation. It was not until thousands demonstrated in the South that lunch counters and other public accommodations were integrated.

It was not until the Freedom Riders were brutalized in Alabama that the 1946 Supreme Court decision banning discrimination in interstate travel was enforced and it was not until construction sites were picketed in the North that Negro workers were hired. Those who deplore our militants, who exhort patience in the name of a false peace, are in fact supporting segregation and exploitation. They would have social peace at the expense of social and racial justice. They are more concerned with easing racial tension than enforcing racial democracy.

The months and years ahead will bring new evidence of masses in motion for freedom. 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. 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.

He was 74 by the time the March on Washington was held, still characterized as the “most dangerous” black man in America.  But the day marked the moment the civil rights torch was passed to a new generation.