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Rising from the Rails: How A. Philip Randolph and the Pullman Porters Helped Pave the Way for the Civil Rights Movement

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Saturday was National Train Day. This year, Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station hosted an event honoring the Pullman porters, the African American men who worked long hours as attendants on the luxurious sleeper trains operated by the Pullman Company from 1868 to 1969. The Pullman porters played an important but unsung role in the history of this country. In 1925, they formed the first black labor union under the stewardship of A. Philip Randolph. They also helped pave the way for the civil rights movement and are also credited with building the black middle class in this country. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Saturday was National Train Day. Usually, you go to a train station to get somewhere. Well, I took Amtrak down to Philadelphia to stay in the 30th Street Station, because it was hosting an event honoring the Pullman porters, the African American men who worked long hours as attendants on the luxurious sleeper trains operated by the Pullman Company from 1868 to 1969.

The first porters George Pullman hired after the Civil War were former slaves. In the ’20s, over 20,000 African Americans worked for the Pullman Company, making it one of the largest employers of African American men.

Today, there are about forty surviving Pullman porters, four of whom were at the event in 30th Street Station in Philadelphia Saturday.

The Pullman porters played an important but unsung role in the history of this country. In 1925, they formed the first black labor union, under the stewardship of A. Philip Randolph, called the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. They helped pave the way for the civil rights movement and are also credited with building the black middle class in this country.

Today, we bring you excerpts of a documentary about the legacy of the Pullman porters. It’s based on the book by journalist Larry Tye called Rising from the Rails: The Story of the Pullman Porter. This excerpt begins with Dr. Juliet E.K. Walker, a professor of history at University of Texas at Austin.

    DR. JULIET E.K. WALKER: They were regarded as the consummate invisible man. In fact, many porters were called “George.”

    JIMMY KEARSE: A lady got on the train in Chicago. Every time I’d serve her, she would call me George. “George, bring me a scotch and soda.”

    MICHAEL McGOINGS: “George” was a term that referred to George Pullman, who had begun the Pullman Company and hired the Pullman porters and what have you. And it was a term that was very much hated by the black workers, whether they were waiters or Pullman porters. They despised that term.

    JIMMY KEARSE: The club car is filled with dignitaries, multimillionaires. President of Universal Steel was one of them on the car at that time. So, she continued to call me “George.” I always served her. Now, I could not talk to her. I could not rebuff her in any way, but I could talk to Mr. Hale, and she got the message. I said, “Mr. Hale, my name is not George, but even though we live in America, the best country in the world, where a liberal education is available to anybody, yet there are still so many people who are so endowed with such dire traits or morbid scrupulosity that they allow ignorance to supersede intelligence.” She got the message, paid her bill and got out. And the whole club car went up in uproars, congratulating me for the delicate way I answered her question.

    MICHAEL McGOINGS: My father said, “If you want somebody to call ‘George,’ you better go make yourself a baby and name him George, so you’ll have somebody to call ‘George,’ because that’s not my name.” And he actually had to go before management about the incident. And it was after that that the railroad began using nametags for the waiters and the porters to tell what their names really was, so that they wouldn’t have to be referred to as “George.”

    PHILIP HENRY LOGAN: They’d just say, “George, will you bring me or get me a glass of water, a drink or something like that?” But it didn’t cause no confusion, nothing like that. I didn’t pay it no attention.

    JIMMY KEARSE: And this gentleman sat on my station. And we waiters have a badge with our names on the badge. So he looked up at me and said, “Jimmy, you look just like a nigger I met in Cincinnati. Are you that nigger?” I said, “No, sir, I’m not that nigger. How could I serve you?” I’ll always remember he ordered steak. That was the most expensive meal on the bill at that time. It cost a dollar and fifty cents. I said, “I’ll serve you.” He said, “You look like a nice nigger. Now, here, take $10.” I said, “No, sir, I won’t take your $10. I’ll wait on you. I will not not take your $10, because I will not allow you to buy my integrity for $10.”

    DR. JULIET E.K. WALKER: The Pullman porters recognized the extent to which they were being exploited, but those who complained would be fired.

    EUGENE BOWSER: A lot of men got fired, fighting and trying to defend yourself. You can’t defend yourself.

    DR. JULIET E.K. WALKER: While there was interest in the need for a labor union, many of the Pullman porters were concerned to support this openly. They needed someone.

    1955 PULLMAN COMPANY TRAINING RECORDING: Some of the luggage the porters are required to handle is heavy and cumbersome. When lifting heavy objects, use your leg muscles instead of your back muscles. Injuries not only reduce your earning capacity, but are painful, as well.

    LARRY TYE: Its low salary, the long hours, the idea that if they broke any one of the hundreds of George Pullman’s rules in his rule book that they could be fired, this led them repeatedly to try to unionize. And George Pullman and his successor, Robert Todd Lincoln, repeatedly crushed them.

    The porters were so discouraged, they went to a man who had never been a Pullman porter and decided to hire him to run their union. This guy had a track record of abject failure. He had tried four times to organize unions, and each time he had failed. He was an avowed socialist. He was everything that you would think would guarantee failure. He was a man named A. Philip Randolph.

    He spent twelve long years battling to organize a union. He watched his top lieutenants be fired. They tried bribery, intimidation. And this guy, nobody quite understood how persistent he was and how much the porters had faith in him.

    BILL HOWES: Randolph was really having very little success, until he got the ear of Franklin Roosevelt. And Roosevelt really became enamored of Randolph. He thought very highly of him.

    DR. JULIET E.K. WALKER: It was this oratorical skill he had, his ability to negotiate with organized labor.

    LARRY TYE: Everybody knows about the famous march on Washington in 1963. That was the march where Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. What people may not know is that the original march on Washington was scheduled twenty-two years before, and it was organized by A. Philip Randolph. And Randolph called it off because Franklin Roosevelt agreed to pass the Fair Employment Practices Act.

    BILL HOWES: Roosevelt backed him. And with that backing, he essentially forced the Pullman Company to capitulate and recognize the union.

    LARRY TYE: Twelve long years to the day that he started his drive to organize a union, the Pullman Company came in, they shocked him, they shocked everybody around this long negotiating table by saying, “We give up. We will sign.” And it was the first-ever trade union for African Americans in America.

    DR. JULIET E.K. WALKER: In 1937, the union won recognition. I mean, this was something — black workers who were able to improve their condition, because they had a union to speak for them.

    WILLIAM GATES: Dad always talked about A. Philip Randolph like the man was a saint, a god almost, and how he revered him and what he did for the Pullman porters.

    EUGENE BOWSER: I met Mr. Randolph on Seventh Avenue. I got a chance to shake hands with him for what he was trying to do for the porters.

    PHILIP HENRY LOGAN: The Pullman porter would have never be where he was, where he’s at today, without President Randolph. No way. Better hours, better benefits, and a place to stay when you were out on the road.

    ELLEN MARTIN STORY: Although they were considered servants, I don’t think that that’s any accident that they were able to form a labor union, because they were exposed to so much. So they could think through that and become a student of, with some help, to form a union.

    LARRY TYE: Most everybody in America today, particularly given her recent death, knows the story of Rosa Parks and knows the story of the Montgomery bus boycott. Well, remember that Montgomery was the place that most people think of as the kickoff to the civil rights movement in America. What people know is that she was arrested, and I think that’s where they think the story ends. She was arrested, and something magical happened: we got a boycott of the buses, it kicked off the civil rights movement. What they don’t know is that the call that she made was to a guy, another name that’s been buried in history, Edgar D. Nixon, known as E.D. Nixon. Nixon ran the local office of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and of the NAACP. And Rosa Parks was his assistant, was his secretary in that office.

    KOREA STROWDER: When he got word that Rosa Parks was — had been arrested, then he organized all the churches to have a meeting. And he contacted Martin Luther King. Martin Luther King said that, well, he would call him back. And so, Nixon told him, “I think you’ll want to be at the meeting because it will be at your church.” Church ministers had been contacted to have their people at his church. So he was almost pushed into being the leader of the organization that started the movement.

    LARRY TYE: Behind the scenes, throughout the long days of the civil rights movement, the Pullman porters played several key roles, the same way they did in Montgomery. They had had a long battle to take on the Pullman Company and start a union. And they shared the lessons they had learned in taking on one of the most powerful white companies in America. And maybe most importantly, when they had no money, which was most of the time in the early days of the civil rights movement, one of the few forces in the black community that could actually raise money and contribute it to their cause was the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

    DR. JULIET E.K. WALKER: The Pullman porters stand out, because no one can discuss American labor history without a discussion of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, without a discussion of the significance of A. Philip Randolph.

    LARRY TYE: With the tragic death of Martin King when he was assassinated, it was A. Philip Randolph who went on carrying on the struggle for another twenty years. That was why he was given the role of chairman of the march on Washington. And yet, we all know we have a holiday celebrating Martin Luther King today, and it’s only the rare young student or older person in America who has any clue who A. Philip Randolph is.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from the documentary Rising from the Rails: The Story of the Pullman Porter, based on the former Boston Globe reporter Larry Tye’s book.

Well, at Philadelphia 30th Street Station this Saturday, I spoke to Dr. Lyn Hughes, founder of the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum in Chicago.

    DR. LYN HUGHES: The Pullman porters had began trying to start a union about ten years into working as Pullman porters on the sleeping car. And they wanted to start a union, but at every turn they were discouraged and threatened with losing their jobs. And so, even though they were working under unfavorable working conditions, it was very difficult for them. And they wanted to start a union, but they had difficulty, because when they did and the Pullman Company found out about their efforts, they threatened to fire them all. And these men had families. So they tried and tried, and they —

    A. Philip Randolph was a labor organizer. He also wrote a magazine called The Messenger. In The Messenger, he wrote about them often, their plight. And so, they knew about him, because they knew he wrote about them. And so, the decision was made by a delegation of them to go to Mr. Randolph and ask if he would help them, the reason being because he was not a porter, so he couldn’t be threatened and/or intimidated. So a delegation of them that included Milton Webster, who was a Chicagoan, they went to New York and asked Mr. Randolph — presented their case and asked him if he would be willing to help them organize a union. And so, he agreed. And as they say, the rest is history.

    And so, what the — he had a profound impact on them, in that he made them feel like they — that they were worthy and they could do anything they really wanted to do, but they had to be — first had to be unified. And so, he very adamantly drummed into them the importance of unity, standing together, and the commitment to a cause. And so, without him, I’m not sure that the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters would have ever manifested.

    AMY GOODMAN: And the culture that they spread, the newspapers, bringing them South?

    DR. LYN HUGHES: I often say that they were distributors of the national and — national distributors of the black newspapers, particularly the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender. They distributed these newspapers in the South, where blacks really didn’t have exposure to information of events and circumstances and things that were of value to African Americans in the North. And so, they virtually distributed the newspapers from the train by throwing them in designated spots, with the person on the other end knowing where they were going to deposit it. And that information got passed from family to family throughout the black community and, in fact, had a huge impact on the migration of African Americans from the South to the North.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Lyn Hughes of the A. Philip Randolph Museum in Chicago. I also spoke to Frank Rollins at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, a former Pullman porter and dining car waiter from Chicago.

    AMY GOODMAN: So what does it mean for you to be honored today?

    FRANK ROLLINS: Well, it’s mighty important to me, because it takes me back over those years of hardship. When I started working for the Illinois Central Railroad, it was $66.37 every two weeks. I started working with the Pullman Company, it was $120 every two weeks. Pullman Company paid for overtime; Illinois Central didn’t. Time and a half at Pullman Company for overtime. Now, to see the whole thing transform from that to the conditions that they later got to work under was almost enviable, except that I was gratified that the change had come.

    I always wanted the company to charge the customer and not have him depend — on the ticket and not have him receive tips at all. I thought it was a little undignifying. But I tried to do my job very well.

    And to come to this, I think we have made a help in the whole transition of the country. I think that people got to know what porters could do, because all the porters I knew, their children were college graduates. Mine were, too. We all were determined to make our kids college graduates.

    Porters and waiters had a little more money than other people, so they contributed a little more to the activist effort of the early days than other people did, for the reason I just described. So, it means a lot to me to see this recognition occur.

AMY GOODMAN: Former Pullman porter and dining car waiter Frank Rollins. And that does it for today’s broadcast on National Train Day this past weekend.

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