He grew up in a poor family and was the son of a Methodist minister. Both of his parents were supporters of human rights and equal rights for African Americans. His family relocated to Jacksonville, Florida, where he would eventually attend the Cookman Institute, which was an early higher learning institution for African Americans.
Randolph moved to Harlem after to study English literature and sociology. He expanded his intellectual horizons by reading modern economic and political writers such as Karl Marx. By reading these authors Randolph developed a viewpoint in which the black working class, not the black elite, would be a source of hope for black progress.
In 1912, Randolph made his first political statement by establishing an employment agency called the Brotherhood of Labor with the goal of organizing black workers. During World War I, Randolph also founded a political magazine, The Messenger, which published articles advocating for the inclusion of more African American soldiers in the armed forces and demanded higher wages.
His work continued with the establishment of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. He sought to gain membership in the American Federation of Labor, which barred African American participation. In 1937, Randolph achieved his goal but withdrew from the AFL the following year due to ongoing discrimination. His success made him a leading figure in the labor movement.
During the 1940s, Randolph used mass protests as a way of influencing governmental change. He helped to organize the March on Washington movement which pressured President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue an executive order that banned discrimination in defense industries. He employed a similar technique that led to former President Harry Truman desegregating the army.
Over the course of his career, Randolph continued to protest systematic racism and helped to form the Negro American Labor Council in 1959. Martin Luther King, Jr., referred to Randolph as a “Dean of Negro leaders.” Randolph retired from public life and spent his last years trying to complete his autobiography. A. Philip Randolph died in his New York City home on May 16, 1979, at the age of 90.