Saturday, January 17, 2009

Obamas' Arrival: Train of Thought

They came to Washington this evening after their Inaugural rail journey and got into a limo surrounded by security in an otherwise deserted Union Station, evoking memories of late nights in that place many years ago.

Back then, after attending a long-winded formal dinner, you could make your way through the desolate terminal at midnight or later and get aboard a waiting Pullman car to read or sleep as it pulled out at 2 a.m. and brought you into Manhattan in the morning, refreshed and ready for work.

Watching tonight's televised arrival there of the about-to-be African-American First Family made you wonder what A. Philip Randolph, whose statue stands in the concourse of Union Station, would have made of it.

In 1925, Randolph organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union for the dignified but deferential black men in white coats who made up beds in those Pullman cars and shined your shoes while you slept. For more than half a century after that, he fought racial discrimination.

During World War II, he was one of the leaders of a proposed March on Washington that pressured FDR into issuing the Fair Employment Act, the first law banning discrimination in industry.

In 1963, Randolph was a leading organizer of a March on Washington that did take place. It was there that Martin Luther King made his "I have a dream speech" to a quarter of a million Americans of all races that led to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Arriving in Washington to begin their journey into history, the Obama family did not see the statue of A. Philip Randolph, but he was there.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There is a fine book, out a few years now, about the Pullman porters called Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class, by Larry Tye.