How many of the people who file into EverBank Field, Veterans Memorial Arena, the Baseball Grounds or the fairgrounds realize they’re walking on a proud piece of history?
For some, A. Philip Randolph Boulevard is just another street named after someone trapped in history books.
But Asa Philip Randolph was arguably the most influential person ever to come from Jacksonville.
It’s a short road, only 15 blocks, not nearly long enough to contain Randolph’s contributions. In 1995, this stretch of Florida Avenue between Bay and First streets was named after Randolph, who grew up just a block away on Jessie Street in the late 1800s.
Randolph was fighting for equal rights long before the well-known civil rights era poetically portrayed in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” He organized the small, all-black International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, winning a key victory with the powerful Pullman Company that was not only a significant gain for the union members, but also for America’s black community.
And it was a career high point for the labor and civil rights leader President Woodrow Wilson called the most dangerous man in America.
As editor and cofounder of The Messenger in 1915, Randolph lashed out at Wilson for reducing the number of federal jobs allotted to blacks and imposing segregation in Washington, D.C., government buildings. Randolph, a gifted orator with a booming baritone, took his message across the country. At a street corner rally, he was arrested by the Justice Department for treason for urging blacks not to fight in World War I. The charges were dropped.
He promised massive marches on Washington, and civil disobedience if three presidents — all extremely popular among blacks — did not take action on behalf of African-Americans.
In 1941, black leaders had little success in gaining jobs for African-Americans at defense plants. Randolph planned a massive march to force President Franklin D. Roosevelt to sign an executive order.
A Washington march was scheduled for July 1, 1941, causing fear of what could happen in what was still a Southern city. Roosevelt tried several indirect methods, but he eventually agreed to an in-person meeting on June 18.
On June 25, six days before the march, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 and named a Fair Employment Practices Committee to enforce it. It opened thousands of defense jobs to blacks and set a precedent that some state governments followed.
Randolph and other leaders informed President Harry S. Truman that they wanted him to ban military segregation. A March 22, 1948, meeting with Truman produced nothing. Randolph launched a civil disobedience campaign against the draft for segregated armed forces. On July 26, Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which never mentioned segregation but did ban it in the military.
Randolph helped organize the biggest demonstration ever by blacks, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which brought 250,000 people to the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963. President John F. Kennedy attempted to dissuade the leaders, but could not. The march achieved its main goal: passage of a civil rights bill the next year.
Randolph’s decades of work and hard-fought victories are overshadowed by the powerful and charismatic Martin Luther King Jr. But the march that helped broadcast King’s undeniable dream might never have happened without Randolph’s experience to pull together disparate groups.
We’ve witnessed so much progress since that march. Some milestones: Jacksonville elected a black sheriff and a black mayor, and the country elected a black president — twice.
At the same time, we’re constantly reminded of how far we have to go. The Supreme Court dismantles protections in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. States like Florida suppress votes with purges of voter rolls, voter ID requirements, elimination of same-day registration and shortened early voting.
The shooting of a black 17-year-old boy by a white man over loud music opens racial wounds that are never really treated. A high school named after a Ku Klux Klan leader in 1959 — out of defiance for the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling to desegregate schools — still bears that name.
During a recent family vacation to Washington, D.C., we visited the National Museum of American History, where we viewed an exhibit called “Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and the March on Washington, 1963.” We wandered through the exhibit and happened upon photos of The Big Six, the civil rights leaders who announced their coalition to organize a national march during a meeting the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City on July 2, 1963.
I overheard a football coach from a Virginia high school explaining who Randolph was to his students. I told him that Randolph was from Jacksonville, and he said he had been to a Jaguars game. When he learned that he had probably walked on A. Philip Randolph Boulevard while he was there, a smile crossed his face. He knew he was a part of that history.