The Contributions of Freethinkers: Asa Philip Randolph

The civil rights movement in America is often identified with Christianity. In large part this is because of the influence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was a Baptist minister and worked the language and cadence of sermons into his most famous speeches – especially the famous paraphrase of the Book of Amos, “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

But the civil rights movement wasn’t organized or led solely by Christians. As often happens in American history, there were prominent freethinkers in the vanguard of social progress, such as the person who’s the subject of today’s post.

Asa Philip Randolph was born in Crescent City, Florida in 1889. He was the son of an ordained minister in the black Methodist church, but his family placed great value on education, and this may be part of the reason why Randolph himself never found any attraction in religion. He attended the Cookman Institute, a segregated high school in East Jacksonville, where he excelled academically despite pervasive racism and became the valedictorian of the class of 1907.

Despite graduating with honors, Randolph’s skin color barred him from all but menial labor in the South, so in 1911 he moved to New York City, where he worked and took night courses at City College. Reading The Souls of Black Folk, by fellow freethinker W.E.B. DuBois, had a major influence on his nascent political consciousness. He joined the Socialist party, where he made union organizing among black workers his mission. Together with his friend Chandler Owen, he also founded The Messenger, a literary magazine whose masthead said in part:

“Our aim is to appeal to reason, to lift our pens above the cringing demagogy of the times… Prayer is not one of our remedies; it depends on what one is praying for. We consider prayer as nothing more than a fervent wish; consequently the merit and worth of a prayer depend upon what the fervent wish is.”

According to an article by Sikivu Hutchinson, The Messenger lived up to its freethought theme by sponsoring essay contests with titles like “Is Christianity a Menace to the Negro?”

Randolph’s work in labor organizing brought him into the fold of the burgeoning civil rights movement. One of his greatest successes was in 1925, when he successfully organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters for railroad employees, bringing improved salaries, job security and working conditions to mainly black workers in one of the few fields that was open to them.

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But as the country was drawn into World War II and black workers were excluded from jobs in the booming defense industry, Randolph set his sights on higher goals. He proposed a march of African-Americans on Washington, D.C. to demand jobs and an end to segregation in the military, and although the march never actually materialized, the threat of it was enough to persuade President Roosevelt to issue the milestone Executive Order 8802, ending segregation in the defense industry. (There’s a famous story, possibly apocryphal, in which Randolph was introduced to FDR, who said he agreed with everything the civil rights movement was demanding but told Randolph to “make me do it“.)

Randolph continued to pressure successive administrations in his role as an organizer and civil-rights spokesman. He was one of the founders of the Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service, a nonviolent civil disobedience campaign which was influential in persuading President Truman to issue Executive Order 9981 in 1948, extending FDR’s earlier declaration by ending segregation in the armed forces.

Later elected vice president of the AFL-CIO, Randolph served as one of the leaders of the civil rights movement. He helped to organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, the famous event where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, and which was instrumental in building momentum for the subsequent passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

Throughout his life, Randolph remained an unapologetic freethinker. He was one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto II, and was declared Humanist of the Year in 1970. This longer biography notes that he was unique in that “he made his reputation as a labor leader rather than by following the more traditional path to African-American leadership through the clergy”, and that his philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience was a formative influence on some of the most successful civil rights leaders of the twentieth century.

Other posts in this series:

Anti-Vaccination Fever Rages On
Atlas Shrugged: Kiss with a Fist
Weekend Bonus Music: Hard Believer
Book Review: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Sharmin

    Thanks for writing this entry! I’ve been wanting to read more about freethinkers who contributed to the civil rights movements.
    -Ani Sharmin

  • Radi

    (There’s a famous story, possibly apocryphal, in which Randolph was introduced to FDR, who said he agreed with everything the civil rights movement was demanding but told Randolph to “make me do it”.)

    EbonMuse, the version of the FDR “make me do it” story I’ve read about has to do with FDR’s Secretary of Labor – Frances Perkins, chief architect of the New Deal (also, incidentally, the first woman cabinet member of the United States).

  • Discoverer

    Randolph sounds like a very cool guy — thanks for highlighting his efforts, Ebon!

    Kinda sounds like his contributions have been marginalized, though. It may be because the people who give the speeches get the recognition…but I have to wonder, since it seems like known freethinkers would have been sidelined back then as much as it is tried to sideline them today. Is there any evidence in history that would show this? (such as books about the subject that downplay his role even if the author should have known better)

    And what, exactly, is the extent of “helped to organize the March on Washington”? Does he get to stand shoulder to shoulder with King, or do freethinkers have to be content with riding the coattails of this particular event?

  • RandomActsOfReason


    Asa Philip Randolph was the director of the March on Washington and one of its founding chairmen. He was known as “the grandfather of the civil rights movement”.

    Bayard Rustin, the strategist and organize of the March on Washington and its deputy director, was an openly gay atheist. He was also MLK’s closest advisor and mentor, and instructed him on Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance tactics. Rustin also organized the first Freedom Ride.

    James Farmer, founder of C.O.R.E and a founding chairman of the March, was an atheist.

    So was Walter Reuther, leader of the United Auto Workers and a founding chairman of the March.

    And Eugene Carson Blake, a founding chairman of the March.

    As was James Foreman, founder of SNCC, the Student non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

    As was Robert Nash Baldwin, founder of the ACLU.

    As were many of the founders of the NAACP.

    That’s just a little taste. In fact, much of the top leadership of the civil rights movement, and many of its leading thinkers, writers, editors and activists were freethinkers.

    MLK acknowledged this numerous times, from his testimony in defense of Rustin to his acknowledgement in one of his books thanking secular humanists for leading the way on equal rights.

  • Discoverer

    Thank you, RandomActsOfReason, that’s a very inspiring list.