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A. Philip Randolph: The Religious Journey of an African American Labor Leader.

A. Philip Randolph: The Religious Journey of an African American Labor Leader. By Cynthia Taylor. New York: New York University Press, 2006. xii + 293 pp. $39.00 cloth.

This volume breaks new ground in twentieth-century African American religious history. First, the author examines the religious ideas of a major African American leader, A. Philip Randolph, who was neither a clergyman nor involved in the internal affairs of a religious institution. The book explores how his ethical beliefs defined and energized black emancipationist strategies to unionize black workers and to end the segregation and discrimination that afflicted the general African American population. Hence, this biography contrasts sharply with the majority of studies in this field that explore the liberationist views of black religious thinkers and ministers rather than those activists who functioned in the laity as adherents to biblically based principles and followers of prophetic critics of the status quo. Second, A. Philip Randolph, far from being the atheist that his detractors deliberately and wrongly called him, was a labor leader who was immensely impressed with the religious heritage of protest and insurgency that defined African American churches. This "cutting edge" leadership had dissipated, and Randolph challenged black parishes and their prelates and preachers to reclaim this lost legacy. Though he eschewed church membership during most of his adult years, he strongly identified with the liberationist ethos of his family denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Third, Randolph, in his pioneering use of grassroots mobilization, prayer protests, and Gandhian nonviolence in the 1940s, anticipated the blending of theological and tactical approaches that activist black clergy used to invigorate the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Though Randolph's several biographers seemed to have examined every facet of his important career, Cynthia Taylor offers a fresh perspective about his religious journey that reinterprets his politically radical ideas, his labor activism, and his civil rights leadership. Taylor's emphasis on Randolph's religious principles, his appreciation of the black church heritage, and his search for progressive and activist clergy shed new light on his life of liberationist activities.

Randolph, born in Crescent City, Florida, in 1889 and the son of a courageous A.M.E. couple, saw his father, a pastor, and his mother, an involved church member, militantly defend and physically protect the rights of African Americans. This social and racial consciousness drew from Richard Allen, Henry M. Turner, and other A.M.E. stalwarts who were insurgent black leaders who preached a gospel of freedom. Randolph's attachment to this A.M.E. ethos was formative and fundamental to his later leadership in labor and civil rights. In New York City, where he migrated in 1911, Randolph was attracted to socialist ideas and radical associations and concluded that these approaches offered the best salvation for oppressed African Americans. Because of his primary focus on the exploited condition of black workers, he measured the worth of black religion and black churches according to their devotion to proletarian issues. He and Chandler Owen founded the radical and provocative periodical The Messenger and used its pages to denounce, challenge, and congratulate African American clergy and congregations that either avoided or advocated just solutions to improve the predicament of the black working class. Randolph blended his A.M.E. social consciousness, his Christian humanism, and his personalism, which emphasized the "sacredness of human personality" as his ethical worldview. By this standard he determined whether black religious ideas and institutions adhered to their liberationist mandate.

Randolph recognized that his efforts to organize the all-black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, to lead the National Negro Congress, and to spearhead the March on Washington Movement required black church support. He was disappointed with those clergy who sided with the Pullman Company against black unionism but lauded those few progressive preachers who understood that organizing black laborers was a sacred cause. In his creative strategies in mobilizing blacks to win the wartime F.E.P.C. from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in using prayer protests to call attention to injustices directed at African Americans, and in developing Gandhian nonviolent techniques as tactics for black advancement, Randolph became a founding father to the modern civil rights movement. The undercurrent of religious ideas and principles that energized these tactics reached fruition in the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-1956, the Prayer Pilgrimage in the nation's capital in 1957, and the massive March on Washington in 1963. Randolph, Taylor argues, viewed the black church as coming around to the militant activism that he had long advocated for the faithful. He formally joined Bethel A.M.E. Church in Harlem in 1957 about the same time he enthusiastically embraced Martin Luther King, Jr., and his religiously based activism. Taylor persuasively asserts that religious ideas as much as socialism defined Randolph's ideology of social change. This contention, boldly declared in this book, challenges the conventional wisdom about the intellectual sources of Randolph's leadership. Hence, this study deserves our serious attention.

Dennis C. Dickerson

Vanderbilt University
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Author:Dickerson, Dennis C.
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2007
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