What do “10,000 Black Men Named George” have to do with Martin L King?

There’s a film about a pivotal labor activist, and with a peculiar title, that tells a sad story within its title, “10,000 Black Men Named George.” Thousands of “nameless” African American men worked as porters on the railroads.  The man was Asa Philip Randolph, although his first name is rarely spelled out.

This is Martin Luther King’s weekend.  His birthday is on Jan. 15th, while we await Monday to celebrate his profound legacy.  Next to the most publicized personalities ­of January and Black History Month – Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Thurgood Marshall, Langston Hughes and William E. B. Du Bois –  Mr. Randolph might be the least known.

It’s remarkable that the most palatable icon, Martin L. King, has not yet had a biopic made about him.  In 1992 Spike Lee gave us “Malcolm X.” Ten years later, Julie Dash gave us “The Rosa Parks Story” with Angela Bassett for cable.  And then, also in 2002, Robert Townsend, brought Showtime TV and us A. Philip Randolph (portrayed by André Braugher) and the porters’ story of toiling to improve Sleeping Car Porters’ work lives.  “10,000 Black Men” potently sheds light on a little known portion of American labor relations, at the crossroad of African-American history.

The film’s first scene shows how their work might go, illustrating a common sort of clash with a client: when a porter sees a woman steal and stow Pullman towels into her luggage, he diplomatically reminds her not to do that.  He tells her that the porters are charged for items, that end up missing.  “Stunned,” she insists on telling his boss, the conductor, of this daring, uppity offense.  When the conductor arrives, the porter stands there and take the situation.

While Rev. King deserves our reverence, he’s one of a small cadre of comet-bright icons – out of the 100s and 1,000s who deserve as much recognition. It’s an irony that so many activists in that list, above, had no films made in their names, save for Justice Marshall with CBS’ “Separate But Equal” in 1991.  One worthy question is “why so few the movies have been made about even that set of almost 10?”

Pullman Porter Helping Woman (courtesy Creative Commons)

“10,000 Black Men” is a delight to watch, sneaking history lessons into a great story.  The under-recognized André Braugher’s portrayal of Randolph is key.  Late in the film there are pivotal scenes that highlight loyalty and betrayal.  One climactic scene has a kindly elder porter, zealous about the movement, found out as a Judas, a double-agent.  And then we see the hardship that Mrs. Randolph, an entrepreneur, endures when protests against on her husband force her to shutter her salon.

According to an excerpt of “Marching Together,” from google books, “the porter [union] election results forced the Pullman Company to recognize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters as the porters’ and maids’ legitimate representative.  More than two years passed before contract negotiations were completed,” 12 years to the day after they began their struggle.

In the 1920s and 1930s the porters were paid such meager respect that the patrons and Pullman Company didn’t care what the porters’ mothers had named them.  It was easier to call “them” George, after George Pullman, the company’s founder.  According to Rising from the Rails, a website that honors the porters, “They were hired…because they epitomized Pullman’s vision of safe, reliable, and invisible servants.”

Taking a way-back look at a movie reminds us of films that could be memorable and give us something, if we take the time for them.  While some movies are “always” on cable TV, these aren’t.