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A Vision of Racial and Economic Justice: A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin

Norman Hill and Velma Murphy Hill began their careers in the civil rights movement in the late 1950s in Chicago, where they met and married. A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin acted as their mentors through every major event in the fight for civil rights. Below, the Hills reflect on the organizing principles that drove their mentors’ activism and struggle. 

More than a year into a national reckoning over racism, two heroes in the struggle for racial justice have received little national attention. A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin were mentor and student, friends and colleagues—eventually, their relationship was like father and son. They were two giants who contributed greatly to the advancement of civil and human rights, economic justice, and coalition politics for the democratization of America. Although younger generations are often unaware of their contributions, it is on their shoulders that today’s activists stand.

Five principles animated their lives of struggle and achievement.


Both Randolph and Rustin were committed to self-liberation. For them, that meant that any group that is mistreated or oppressed, that is treated unfairly and unjustly, that is discriminated against, should challenge the status quo. In short, they asked, “If you don’t fight for yourself, who will?”

Raised in segregated Jacksonville, Florida, A. Philip Randolph took that self-liberating principle, learned from his parents, to New York. He organized Black hotel workers, established a trade union and a socialist newspaper, The Messenger, and then headed the effort to organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first major union with Black leadership. A twelve-year struggle for recognition and full membership in the American Federation of Labor, plus a union contract with the Pullman Company, established the union as the nation’s strongest mass Black organization. It lifted tens of thousands of workers from poverty; offered educational opportunities to their children; and provided local bases for civil rights and labor rights struggles, from Chicago to Oakland. As the Brotherhood’s national leader, Randolph made the union “the advance guard” (as he later called it) of a sweeping campaign for racial equality that began with the goal of integrating the labor movement and led to the passage of national civil rights legislation.

Bayard Rustin, raised by his Quaker grandmother in a small town in Pennsylvania, took the principle of self-liberation from his upbringing and faith to a life of protest for equality. A pacifist and early practitioner of nonviolent resistance, he led the first “freedom ride” on interstate transportation to the South in 1947 as an organizer for the interracial Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). Later rejected by the fellowship for his homosexuality, Rustin was welcomed by Randolph, who tasked him with organizing support in the North for the emerging civil rights movement in the South. One assignment was to go to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 to aid the bus boycott led by Martin Luther King Jr. He organized the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington, D.C. (when Dr. King made his “Give Us the Ballot” speech) in order to press the Eisenhower administration to implement the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision ending segregation in public education. This was followed by Youth Marches for Integrated Schools in 1958 and 1959.

In between, Rustin developed the plan for Dr. King to create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but there, too, his homosexuality meant rejection. (In the 1980s, Rustin expressed the same self-liberation principle in standing up for gay rights.) The most important of Randolph’s assignments, though, was when he asked Rustin organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Read entire article at Dissent