Renewed, Recharged, Ready for the Fight

This keynote Speech was delivered by guest author Norman Hill, President Emeritus, A. Philip Randolph Institute at the 2022 APRI Annual Conference in Baltimore, MD (edited). Normal Hill was also the staff director for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. 

As I approach 90 years young, it is especially gratifying to do so here in Baltimore. You know me as president emeritus of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, which I was privileged to help organize and lead for 37 years, from 1967 to 2004. I traveled the country to 200 APRI chapters we founded to mobilize Black trade unionists, to organize voter registration and participation campaigns, to build the essential coalition of labor and the Civil Rights movement, and to pursue the struggle for racial and economic justice.

My career began at CORE, the Congress on Racial Equality. And it’s between Baltimore and Wilmington that we organized the Route 40 Freedom Rides campaign in 1960 and 1961, to desegregate restaurants and hotels denying equal service and treatment to Black citizens. People may forget how this campaign began. As the countries on the African continent gained independence and freedom, the US State Department was embarrassed that a growing number of African diplomats were being denied service as they traveled to and from their new embassies in Washington, DC to the United Nations in New York.

Imagine. The State Department’s solution to the Jim Crow North was to negotiate with the private establishments to serve just the diplomats! We refused any solution that continued to deny equal treatment to Black customers. Students, with rising consciousness, were especially agitated. So were the diplomats. They gained freedom with the support of the United States government and were appalled that U.S. citizens were being denied freedom on the basis of the color of their skin.

I was the East Coast director of CORE and mobilized students, Civil Rights activists, trade unionists, and others for the Route 40 campaign. White joined Black to desegregate all facilities fully. It was a hard struggle, just as it was to integrate the beaches in Chicago, my first campaign with my beloved life partner, Velma. As a youth leader, she courageously led the wade-in at Rainbow Beach and suffered the violent consequences, before the city government finally allowed equal access. The Route 40 campaign was also organized with Velma’s essential help. We came face to face with the same hatred and even violence, but we succeeded. And the Route 40 campaign led quickly to the desegregation campaign of Baltimore city itself and gave impetus to passage in Maryland of the first Civil Rights Act below the Mason-Dixon line.

My sisters and brothers, I’ve been in the fight for racial justice and economic equality my whole professional life, nearly 65 years, and even before as a student. I’ve faced many crossroads on my journey. I do not recount this history to reminisce about our successes but for a different reason. Some thought we might be able to rest at some point to enjoy the fruits of our many labors. But while we can all use equally the facilities on I-95 to rest while traveling, we cannot rest on the journey to full democracy. We have much work to do.

My sisters and brothers, this is as dangerous a time as I can remember. January 6—no, the whole presidency and post-presidency of Donald Trump—remind us that hatred and racial violence did not go away when we integrated Route 40 or when we passed the great Civil Rights legislation. As President Biden has said, the hatred hid, only to reemerge. And, as Rep. Bennie Thompson, Chairman of the House Select Committee for January 6th, reminds us, the threat today is whether American democracy—what we so relied on to make progress—survives at all. This threat is as real and vivid as the hateful youth throwing rocks at Velma at Rainbow Beach. You know what that challenge means for all of us.

So, today, I want to address you today on the theme of the A. Philip Randolph Institute conference. We must renew ourselves in our commitment, recharge ourselves in spirit, and ready ourselves again for the fight. This is an existential fight for American democracy in 2022. If we let reactionary forces win these elections, even just one chamber of the Congress, it would have devastating consequences.

We also know what progress can be achieved if we expand the ranks of a pro-Black, pro-worker, pro-democracy Congress. We can make real strides in achieving a true multiracial democracy and greater levels of economic justice and racial equality.

My sisters and brothers, it is understandable to grow tired. And we can understand that young people are discouraged at the lack of progress, even the reversal of progress, almost 60 years since the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. We also know the figures: Black wealth is 10 times less than that of whites. Every statistic of social and economic well-being is still far lower for Blacks than whites. Only our Native American sisters and brothers have greater levels of inequality. We also recognize that our young people are disheartened that two years after mobilizing what some describe as the largest mass protest for racial justice after George Floyd’s horrific murder, today they see a level of reaction that not even a President can overcome when having such a narrow majority of his own party in Congress.

Whenever we think of tiring, though, we remind ourselves and others of the great example and spirit of our founders, the outstanding Civil Rights leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin

They, too, all of their lives to the end, faced the enduring reactionary forces of America’s past. They did not tire of confronting the hatred and violence so concentrated in its power against Black Americans. They did not tire confronting the reactionary economic forces bent on exploiting workers of all races. And they did not tire confronting the reactionary tyrannies of the world, from South Africa to the Soviet Union.

The lives of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin give us the renewable energy source, in their basic principles, to ready ourselves again for the fight. There were five basic principles that guided Randolph and Rustin in their lives of struggle. You may have heard me speak of them, but let me remind our younger members:

The first principle is self-liberation.

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 to gain greater freedom and equality. In short, they asked, “If you don’t fight for yourself, who will?"

For Randolph, the fight for self-liberation meant accepting the challenge to lead the 12-year-long struggle to win recognition and a fair contract for the most oppressed group of Black workers, the Sleeping Car Porters of the Pullman Company. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters created a pathway to the middle class for tens of thousands of workers, to educational advancement for their children, and grew into what Randolph called the “advance guard” of the Civil Rights Movement.

The same principle led Bayard Rustin to organize the first interstate Freedom Rides in 1947, to endure imprisonment 21 times in the struggle for racial equality, to join Martin Luther King in Montgomery, AL, and to help create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It meant living life on his terms as a gay man and demand equal rights for LGBTQ+ Americans.

>b>The second and third principles were commitments to mass action and nonviolence. These were interrelated and allowed the possibility for self-liberation.

Mass actions: The picket line, the boycott, the march—were the tools for the mistreated and their allies, regardless of education level or social and economic status, to confront key decisionmakers and demand real change. As Randolph said, “Nothing counts but pressure, pressure, more pressure, and still more pressure through broad organized aggressive mass action.”

Nonviolence: Did not mean just passive non-resistance; that was one tactic. Rather it was an integral principle for actions geared toward achieving specific goals. Randolph and Rustin argued that violence was self-defeating for any minority seeking redress of grievances from the majority. It led to greater oppression, not liberation. Individual or local action can gain attention, but only collective, non-violent, mass action can achieve goals for overcoming inequality and injustice or improving social and economic conditions.

The fourth principle was commitment to a society in which equality and economic justice would prevail for all people, not just for Black people. Randolph and Rustin believed that full racial equality and justice could be achieved only through demands for economic equality. It was Randolph and Rustin who insisted on the broader demands of “Jobs and Justice” for the March on Washington. It was Randolph and Rustin who initiated the program for a Freedom Budget, which Martin Luther King, Jr. and a broad coalition adopted in 1965.

The fifth principle is also interrelated: The commitment to a majoritarian strategy involving coalition politics. The coalition for racial and economic justice had to be broad, encompassing different faith organizations as well as those of ethnic and minority groups. But the core of the coalition had to be an alliance between the trade union and Civil Rights movements. It was on this basis that Randolph created the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights in the early 1950s. It is on this basis that we can still build a majority for progress today.

Everything Randolph and Rustin—and more broadly the Civil Rights Movement—achieved was on the basis of these five principles that they made an integral part of American democracy. These principles advanced Black workers through the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and through the AFL-CIO generally. They were central to integrating defense industries and the armed services; to desegregation of city and interstate transportation; to integration of schools; to desegregation of public facilities. Finally, through the March on Washington and the March on Montgomery, they achieved the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Acts.

From those advances more history was made. Through the efforts of the A. Philip Randolph Institute and others, voter registration and participation of Blacks rose markedly. Black voters were key to stemming the reactionary tide of Reaganism and then were central to bringing about the election of America’s first Black president for two terms. In 2018 and 2020, Black voters were key to stemming the reactionary tide of Trumpism and electing the most diverse Congresses in history. And our work was central to integrating the labor movement and helping stabilize it from worse decline.

Sisters and brothers, the reactionary forces we face today are, in many ways, the same forces we always faced: racism and worker exploitation that also find form in nationalism, misogyny, homophobia, and religious bigotry. They are the forces that have prevented the great ideals of the country when it started from being fulfilled. But let us realize that these forces are mobilized now in a new extremist and authoritarian, movement. These forces, representing a large part of American society, do not rest. Nor can we.

Sisters and brothers, the country is again at a crossroads: Will it take the path of reaction or progress? The stakes have never been higher. Reactionary forces across the country are hard at work to take away our rights, our freedoms, our bodily autonomy, our right to vote, our right to organize and bargain collectively, and the basic possibility to improve our economic well-being and pursue our freedom and happiness. We see what these forces are capable of doing, when they are empowered at the state level. We know what damage they have caused when they were empowered at the national level. And if the current Republican Party wins national power in even one legislative chamber, the path towards reaction is laid down, not just for the next two years but for 2024 and the next decade. Our democracy is in serious peril.

But we can stem this reactionary tide, as we have done before. We can mobilize to make sure the country rejects reaction and instead elects an even more pro-Black, pro-worker, pro-rights Congress. We can gain greater support for progressive policies to rebuild the country, restore voting and civil rights, restore union rights, and rebuild the middle class.

It is time again to make history. Whether it was in 1960 and 1961 on Route 40 or today in states up and down the I-95 corridor, and beyond, it is up to us to act. So, yes, let us renew, recharge and ready for this fight. Let the APRI be a force to fight anti-democratic, reactionary forces and so to continue to build the possibilities for the progress Randolph and Rustin envisioned for a better and more just and equal society.

I lay out the call to encourage APRI chapters everywhere in the country to mobilize to take part in voter registration and voter participation campaigns, and to undertake those efforts with special vigor and purpose in battleground states and battleground congressional districts where our votes will have most impact.

I lay out the call to reach out to our young Black brothers and sisters, students and workers alike, to register and participate fully in these elections, both as voters and as foot soldiers. Let us encourage them not to give up by us not tiring. Let us remind them of A. Philip Randolph’s parable of the stonecutter. Perhaps you remember. The stonecutter’s heavy labors to break the quarry stone were for naught for a hundred strikes of the hammer. The stone resisted and would not relent. But finally, the stonecutter, his body covered in sweat, broke the stone in one mighty last strike. But the stonecutter knew it was not the last strike that broke it, but all the strikes before. My mentor and friend never let me forget this parable.

Let us also, as we did in the Civil Rights movement, build the largest coalition and draw on local NAACP branches, the Black church and allied places of worship, our white and brown allies in civic, community and voter organizations, and especially all our brothers and sisters in the labor movement, to work jointly to bring out the largest progressive vote possible to elect a pro-Black, pro-rights and pro-worker Congress as well as state governments.

Let us not stop there, friends. Our local chapters and national organization, with its impressive leadership, can be an important cog for self-liberation and for fulfillment of the progress that A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin struggled for. There are important organizing drives and labor struggles taking place all around the country, from Staten Island, NY, to Bessemer, AL, from Buffalo, NY, to Seattle, WA, especially in service industries where young Black, brown and white workers toil for sub-living wages with little opportunity for advancement. We have important experiences to share and organizational strength to back them up. They need our help and we need to reach out to them to offer whatever help they need.

There is other important progress to be made. We need to mobilize support for national voting rights legislation, for other legislation protecting basic rights for women and the LGBTQ+ community, and for the Protection to Organize Act that can help spur the revival of the labor movement. Even now, there are possibilities, through what’s been achieved by passing the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. Velma and I have revived the Recruitment and Training Initiative, with many of your help, to recruit young Black women and men into the Building and Construction trades, and through that effort to encourage their participation in unions. We can change the culture and thrust of that least-integrated part of the labor movement. I know we can continue to count on your support for this initiative.

By taking on these challenges, there is a great opportunity if we seize it to revitalize the A. Philip Randolph Institute, to replenish its ranks with the younger generation of Black trade unionists, to re-instill Randolph’s and Rustin’s principles of self-liberation, mass action, non-violence, majority coalition-building and racial and economic justice for all.

So, as you know I always do, let me close with a quote from A. Philip Randolph:

"Salvation for a race, nation or class must come from within. Freedom is never granted; it is won. Justice is never given; it is exacted and the struggle must be continuous for freedom is never a final fact, but a continuing evolving process to higher and higher levels of human, social, economic, political and religious relationships."