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March on Washington in 1963

A. Philip Randolph, shown here at the March on Washington with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders, was among those who organized the march, held Aug. 28, 1963, to put pressure on the federal government to give blacks their rights. PHOTO COURTESY OF NATIONAL ARCHIVES

It is good for movements to put pressure on presidential candidates to do the right thing.

I did not learn this from a candidate for president, of course. I learned this from the man I have always understood as the most steadily radical and steadily successful political actor of the American 20th century: A. Philip Randolph.

Those who are uneasy with the pressure that activists are bringing to bear on presidential candidates in the already intense 2016 race would do well to remember the strategies and the successes of Randolph, the labor leader who for the better part of 50 years recognized every campaign and every presidential invitation as an opportunity to demand racial justice and economic equality.

When #BlackLivesMatter activists challenge a Bernie Sanders or a Martin O’Malley, when climate change activists challenge a Hillary Clinton, when campaigners against bloated military budgets challenge all the candidates, they do not merely draw attention to vital issues. They have the potential to make candidates and campaigns — and our politics — better.

This is the lesson Randolph taught, along with the lesson that, while it is important to celebrate progress and to recognize allies, activists have a responsibility to keep the pressure on. “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 relationship,” said Randolph, who in his lifetime became an expert at exacting justice, and at evolving candidates and presidents to higher levels of engagement with the civil rights struggle.

As the leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union and one of the nation’s most prominent African-American leaders, Randolph organized the March on Washington Movement, which forced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to bar segregation in defense industries on the eve of World War II. He and his allies picketed the 1948 Democratic National Convention, which nominated President Harry Truman, demanding an end to segregation in the armed forces. Two weeks later Truman issued the order.

Even as his stature rose, Randolph was not satisfied. Though he, as a trade unionist, a leading socialist and a civil rights champion, had earned a measure of acceptance in the corridors of power, Randolph held to the view he and his comrades had expressed decades earlier: “In this period of power politics, nothing counts but pressure, more pressure, and still more pressure, through the tactic and strategy of broad, organized, aggressive mass action behind the vital and important issues of the Negro.”

In 1963, Randolph called for a “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” in order to pressure President John F. Kennedy to get serious about enacting civil rights legislation — and about using the power of the federal government to protect civil rights activists from state violence in the South. Randolph never let up; he kept demanding more racial justice, more economic justice, more justice.

Randolph and the movements with which he worked forced candidates and presidents with whom the labor leader had good relations, and who he often believed to be well-intentioned, to move beyond relationships and intentions to action. In so doing, he made candidates and presidents better than they imagined they could be at responding to issues of racial disparity and economic injustice.

The same goes for the 2016 presidential candidates who are now being pressured. Folks can debate about strategies and tactics, just as they did in Randolph’s day, just as they did when ACT UP activists interrupted events for 2000 Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore to focus attention on the failure of American policymakers to respond to the AIDS crisis in Africa.

This summer, #BlackLivesMatter activists have interrupted events and challenged both Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley to address issues of policing and racism that they argue must be a focus of the 2016 race.

O’Malley has since released a detailed plan calling for an overhaul of the criminal justice system, which declares, “For too long, our justice system has reinforced our country’s cruel history of racism and economic inequality.”

Sanders has incorporated into his core list of campaign proposals a racial justice platform that begins with the declaration, “We must pursue policies that transform this country into a nation that affirms the value of its people of color. That starts with addressing the four central types of violence waged against black and brown Americans: physical, political, legal and economic.”

The Sanders platform makes sweeping commitments to reforms aimed at eradicating racism in this country. It pulls no punches in explaining physical violence against black and brown Americans is “Perpetrated by the State.” “Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Samuel DuBose. We know their names. Each of them died unarmed at the hands of police officers or in police custody. The chants are growing louder. People are angry and they have a right to be angry.”

Sanders, who was in the crowd when Randolph and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the 1963 March on Washington, has as a senator spoken up about police violence and the neglect of urban communities and unemployed youth. This history, distant and recent, has led some Sanders supporters to gripe that he has been unfairly targeted for pressure. But this misses the point that his campaign has been made sharper and more focused by the pressure it has felt — and the pressure it will continue to feel. The same goes for O’Malley. And so it should go for Hillary Clinton and others.

Politics — real politics as opposed to the game show that most of the media perpetuate — involves pressure and it is the response to that pressure that gives us the measure of candidates. No contender for the presidency has ever ended a campaign as he or she began. Campaigns are, and should be, critical pivot points in what A. Philip Randolph understood as the “continuing evolving process to higher and higher levels of human, social, economic, political and religious relationship.” To think otherwise is to accept a politics as usual that reinforces a status quo that needs, on so many issues, and on so many levels, to be shattered.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising

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