A. Philip Randolph, the Organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Was an Atheist

The American Humanist Association has, on its website, a nice remembrance of A. Philip Randolph, the union organizer who was central to organizing the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of today.

Contrary to popular belief, the march wasn’t organized by King. It was the brainchild of a humanist named Asa Philip Randolph. As a union organizer and leader of the secular wing of the Civil Rights movement, Randolph had first planned the march for July 1941. It was to call for desegregation of the armed forces and fair working opportunities for people of color. Alarmed by organizing efforts leading up to the event, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 establishing the Fair Employment Practices Committee and desegregating the civilian war industries. So Randolph called the march off but continued his pioneering work with nonviolent civil confrontation—developing techniques that would later be adopted by King.

Then two decades later, in December 1962, Randolph and Bayard Rustin began planning the historic gathering we all know, with Randolph as march director and opening speaker…

Randolph went on to accept the Humanist of the Year Award from the American Humanist Association in 1970 and sign Humanist Manifesto II in 1973. So on this significant anniversary, when we think of the struggles of those who worked for change, let us include in our memories one of the great humanists of the twentieth century, Asa Philip Randolph.

If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, Tim Carmody‘s piece on the significance of the March is just fantastic.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • islandbrewer

    An atheist union organizer in the civil rights movement? No,no, no! The conservative christian right has a hard enough time trying to claim MLK Jr. as one of their own, how are they going to spin this one?

    • mck9

      While they’re at it, they can spin the fact that Bayard Rustin was openly gay.

      • Mr. Creazil

        And while they’re at that, they can sit and spin.

      • Erp

        Also a socialist and a pacifist (one who spent over two years in prison [which he then tried to desegregate] for refusing to be drafted or do the make-work that official COs were given). Rustin was the one who made the march successful because by all accounts he was an incomparable organizer.

        Note that W.E.B. Du Bois, another African-American activist and freethinker, died the day before the march.

        • Randay

          I recommend that everyone read “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. Dubois. A relatively more recent book(1981) is “The Harder We Run” by William H. Harris. It comes up with similar conclusions.

          Many thanks to Ken Burns in his series “The War” about how white racism nearly undermined the WWII production effort in Mobile, Alabama.

          Great police story writer Chester Himes wrote about racism in Los Angeles shipbuilding yards in WWII in “If He Hollars, Let Him Go”. Himes had to go to France to publish his best stories throughout the fifties. How many know that the film “Cotton Comes to Harlem” is based on his book?

          Most of his books would make great films.

        • LutherW

          Rarely, yet sometimes it is no so bad when a atheist is found in prison.

      • Gregory Peterson

        Openly Gay and a Quaker follower of the Hindu man, Mahatma Gandhi, who was much influenced by the Jains, if memory serves.

  • Dez

    I think the reason for not hearing about this man is that the heavy influence of the church in the black community. It’s expected that a person who was in the civil rights movement was religious because the church was the only place blacks could organize safely somewhat. Of course Mr. Randolph is an “evil atheist” so there’s no way he could do “godly” work on the behalf of his people. It angers me to no end that black has to equate to religious.

  • http://skepticink.com/dangeroustalk Dangerous Talk

    The co-organizer, Bayard Rustin, was also an atheist. They recently named a High School after him in West Chester, PA where is was from. Republicans were outraged because he was an atheist and a gay man. Their heads exploded, but it passed anyway.

    • Erp

      Actually he was a Quaker. Now he might have also been an atheist (there are atheistic Quakers) but I haven’t found any good evidence. Do you have any?

  • Tobias2772

    A Phillip Randolph was a civil rights stud. He organized the (black) Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters way back in 1925. He organized black sit-ins back in the 1940′s before MLK was out of kneepants. He led the movement for over 60 years. On every front, this humanist walked the walk.

  • Monika Jankun-Kelly

    I did not know this. It sure wasn’t mentioned on TV, amid all the prayers and God praising at the anniversary of the march on Washington event. Thank you, Hemant, for this history lesson. We have to share and remember so one day our children or grandchildren will maybe read it in a history book. I can hope.


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