Frank Lumpkin, “Saint of Chicago,” dies at 93

Picket Frank Lumpkin JCcrop

Frank Lumpkin, the "Saint of Chicago" and life long fighter for worker rights, full equality and socialism, passed away March 1 at the age of 93.

Lumpkin led a remarkable life. Born in 1916 into a family of sharecroppers in Washington, Ga., his early years were shaped by the struggle against poverty and sweltering racism of the Deep South.

Lumpkin began work at age six for his uncle, hauling heavy sacks of "blue stone" that were used for paving. It shaped his lifetime attitude toward hard work.

His parents moved the family, including Frank and 5 siblings, to Orlando, Florida in search of work. There they lived and worked on an orange grove, where four more brothers and sisters were born.

At age 15, Lumpkin quit school to work full time in the citrus plantations. He also started boxing professionally and soon excelled at the sport. He was unofficially known as the "heavyweight champ of the South" and "KO" Lumpkin.

In 1940 in search of a better life, Frank followed his older brother to Buffalo, N.Y. where he worked in construction, in an aircraft factory and at Bethlehem Steel. The rest of the family, including Frank's mother and father followed soon after.

In Buffalo, Frank's sister Jonnie met and worked with Communists at her workplace who were active trade unionists. Her activism eventually led to the rest of her family being introduced to the Communist Party. The Lumpkin home became a center for struggle in Buffalo. They led struggles against home evictions, racism and against the growing menace of fascism.

When theUnited States  entered World War II, the Army refused Frank because one of his hands had been injured in childhood. So to help in the war effort, Lumpkin became a Merchant Marine and joined the National Maritime Union.

Lumpkin's union experience and the family activism in Buffalo led him to join the Young Communist League along with 200 other young workers at a mass meeting. Later he joined the CPUSA.

After the war, Lumpkin continued to work in the Merchant Marine until his ship was sold from under him in Greece. He returned to Buffalo in 1948 and was hired on at another steel plant. He arrived just in time to campaign for the Progressive Party candidate for President, Henry Wallace.

In 1949, he answered a Communist Party call to protest racism on a Lake Erie cruise ship. Lumpkin was cruelly clubbed by police and arrested on a charge of interfering with an officer making an arrest. Lumpkin insisted on a jury trial and an all-white jury acquitted him.

That same year Paul Robeson returned to Peekskill, N.Y., for a mass rally in defiance of fascist thugs and Frank Lumpkin was determined to be there. He traveled from Buffalo with a group of steelworkers and walked through a racist mob to act as security with other WWII veterans. The rally participants were later attacked and brutally assaulted while State and Local police stood off to the side and watched.

Lumpkin proudly recounted the story, "The night before the concert I told my brother Warren, you know Paul Robeson is going back to Peekskill. Warren said, 'is he crazy, they almost killed him the first time.' So I answered, 'but this time we'll be there.'"

During this period, Frank Lumpkin had fallen in love with Beatrice Shapiro, a sister activist and they decided to get married. But times were tough during the post-war recession so they moved to Chicago, because "if you couldn't find work in Chicago, you couldn't find work anywhere."

Lumpkin finally landed a job at Wisconsin Steel, owned by International Harvester, and worked there for 30 years as a chipper, scarfer and millwright.

In March 1980, over 3,000 workers arrived at work to find the gates padlocked. International Harvester, through sham moves, had "sold" the company to Envirodyne to avoid paying pensions. In addition, the bank that handled the payroll had stolen the workers' final pay by not honoring the checks.

Rather than go home quietly, the Save Our Jobs Committee was born and the workers fought. Lumpkin led them against an array of powerful forces and corrupt politicians backed by the mob. They marched and protested from city hall, to the state legislature and Congress.

From the start, Lumpkin never, ever considered the possibility of giving up. For 17 years the workers fought refusing nothing less than victory, which finally came in, winning $17 million in stolen pension money that was distributed to the workers. For that he became known as the "Saint of Chicago."

He was involved in every major fight spanning the decades, including the election of Harold Washington as Chicago's first African American mayor. He was present at the first meeting to organize the campaign and become one of the initiators of a Labor for Washington Committee. After the election Mayor Washington appointed him to governmental task forces on the steel industry and dislocated workers.

Lumpkin continued the fight for independent politics by running for State Representative three times on the Independent Progressive line, challenging the famed Chicago Democratic Party "machine." His slogan was, "Send a Steelworker to Springfield."

During the economic crisis of 1981-83, Lumpkin helped organize Jobs or Income Now, a grassroots organization of the unemployed and the national Congress of Unemployed Organizations held in Chicago. Lumpkin gave the keynote address and was elected chair of the Congress.

Watch this tribute below from Chicago's public TV station WTTW.

Lumpkin was a longtime member of the CPUSA's National Committee, and traveled the world. Jarvis Tyner, national executive vice chair of the CPUSA, said about Lumpkin, "What a working class hero. Frank lived an exemplary life for all who believe that the people come first to follow. Frank was a communist first and foremost and stood strong for the freedom of his class and people. He will not be forgotten."

Lumpkin was also an active member of the Coalition for Labor Union Women, and founding member of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. He was also active in Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees  and the Alliance of Retired Americans. He served on the Policy Council of Illinois Citizen Action.

At age 90 he was still active, including a labor walk for Tammy Duckworth, a candidate for Congress in 2006 in the 6th CD in Illinois.

Despite never having finished school, Lumpkin was a worker intellectual, an avid reader and always took an interest in new ideas.

He and his wife of 60 years, Bea, enjoyed a full and active life together, in addition to their four children had three grandchildren. Always a gregarious man, Lumpkin loved people and was in turn loved and respected by his comrades and co-workers and will be missed by all.

Donations can be sent in Frank's memory to his favorite newspaper, the People's World and to the Workers Education Society, a tax-deductible charity. His ashes will be interred next to the Haymarket Memorial in Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park at noon April 24, followed by a memorial service at 1:30 pm at Workers United, 333 S. Ashland Ave., Chicago.

Photo: Frank Lumpkin on HERE picketline at The Congress Plaza Hotel with hotel workers in Chicago, July 2, 2005.  Jose Cruz/PW

 

 

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  • What a great story and a great life of hard work and true leadership. Rest in peace, Frank.

    Posted by conures, 12/15/2010 12:17pm (4 years ago)

  • Oh how sad I am to learn of Frank's death. I've known and loved Bea and Frank since I first moved to Chicago in the mid-80s. Frank was such an inspiration to so manyof us, as we fought the union struggles in Chicago all those years. Marge Piercy's poem: To Be Of Use embodies Frank's life.

    TO BE OF USE

    The people I love the best
    jump into work head first
    without dallying in the shallows
    and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
    They seem to become natives of that element,
    the black, sleek heads of seals
    bouncing like half submerged balls.

    I love people who harness themselves,
    as ox, to a heavy cart,
    who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
    who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
    who do what has to be done, again and again.

    I want to be with people who submerge
    in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
    and work in a row and pass the bags along,
    who are not parlor generals and field deserters
    but move in a common rhythm
    when the food must come in
    or the fire be put out.

    The work of the world is common as mud.
    Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
    But the thing worth doing well done
    has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
    Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
    Hopi vases that held corn are put in museums
    but you know they were made to be used.
    The pitcher cries for water to carry
    and a person for work that is real.

    Marge Piercy, CIRCLES ON THE WATER

    Rest in Peace, gentle soul. . . .

    Posted by Ellen Caffrey Garza, 04/03/2010 2:08pm (4 years ago)

  • Frank is a true inspiration to those who are downtrodden. Let's hope that the CPUSA never loses sight of the trail this great comrade blazed for us.

    Posted by Che Kerouac, 03/22/2010 1:19am (5 years ago)

  • RIP to A Working Class Giant

    Posted by Red Grandad, 03/16/2010 5:50am (5 years ago)

  • RIP Frank

    Posted by brian, 03/15/2010 3:56pm (5 years ago)

  • A few days ago Frank Lumpkin died, a true American hero. I am still grateful that I was lucky enough to know not only him but his whole big fighting family!

    I was fresh out of Harvard, a red diaper New York radical in 1949, set on working in a factory and the union movement, where, I was convinced, the main decisions would be made. There were no jobs in Syracuse, where I first landed, so the party organizer gave me a tiny note saying: Hattie Lumpkin, 263 Watson St. He had no money, nor did I, so I hitched my way and found the address, right in Buffalo’s black ghetto. In a rocking chair on the veranda of a rickety wooden house was a rather plain looking woman; maybe the grandma, I thought. Could she tell me where to find Hattie Lumpkin? With just a little twinkle in her eye she answered the naïve looking white kid: “That’s me, son!”

    She took me in, fed me some southern dish (with okra), and sent me to stay with white comrades across town. “No sense being conspicuous if you want a job!” But first she slipped a ten dollar bill into my hand.

    I got a job and kept strictly to myself for the 3 month probation period. Even after that, often on late shift, the next year and a half was very lonely for me, a technical imbecile, trying not to betray my college upbringing in the worsening McCarthy hysteria. The one thing that saved me was the warmth I found in the Lumpkin house. I found that Hattie, her husband, the grandma and ten sons or daughters had moved up from Orlando to find a halfway decent life. One daughter, Jonnie, later known as Pat Ellis, got in with a leftist crowd and joined the Young Communist League. Hattie, still religious, wanted to throw her out. But one by one Jonnie won them all over, including her mother, who became a leading Buffalo Communist – a fighter loved by all in the neighborhood, especially those whose evictions she helped reverse. Jonnie, a leader in the youth movement, she recruited over a hundred new members in one campaign, got a job at Bell Aircraft, and made a fighting speech from the wing of a new plane while leading the campaign to get African-Americans including herself off jobs like sweeping and into production. She was a fighter.

    And so was her brother Frank, a powerful boxer and then a steelworker, like several of his brothers, when there were jobs, that is. Frank told me in those days of his dreams of a better world, and even thought of how good life might be some day on a genuine cooperative farm.

    But the world was cold in Buffalo in those McCarthy years. Spiting it, young ghetto people and white ex-students like myself formed a defiantly jolly, singing group of the new Labor Youth League– that was the child of American Youth for Democracy which was the child of the Young Communist League, with each child smaller than its parent. When the pleasure liner to Crystal Beach in Canada decided not to sell tickets to “single males” the group went to test them; our white “single males” got tickets; our black “single males” got none. We complained. Before we knew it two cops appeared. We continued to complain, peacefully, until one cop hit Frank over the head. While the blood poured, and we shouted, the second cop drew his pistol. Immediately Jonnie (Pat), nine months pregnant, threw her arms around her brother’s neck, weeping loudly and hysterically. It was an act, all right, one which probably saved him. Months later we were able to get Frank acquitted of attacking a cop. Before Buffalo, I knew nothing of ghetto life; my only acquaintance with African-Americans had been a couple of intellectuals. I hated racism but knew very little about it. I learned plenty!

    I was drafted soon afterward, had Mcarthy trouble and fled the country (and the army). So I never met Hattie, Frank, Bessie Mae or Gladys again.

    From abroad, over the decades, I heard occasionally about Jonnie, a leader in Harlem and then, with her active, fighting husband Henry Ellis, in Chicago. And even more about Frank, and how he led laid-off steelworkers of Chicago in the long, hard battle for their rights. What an extraordinary family, a real American epic of fighters and leaders! For me, the Lumpkins were an education and an inspiration for as long as I have lived. For Frank, a true hero, we can only say “Presente”!

    Posted by Victor Grossman, 03/15/2010 11:30am (5 years ago)

  • Brother/Companero Lumpkin will be sorely missed by all that knew of his work. Frank was the kind of trade unionists that one just has to admire and try to learn from.

    He's at peace now and will always be in our hearts and in our minds.

    Posted by Pancho Valdez, 03/11/2010 6:24pm (5 years ago)

  • Although I never had a one on one conversation with Frank, on several ocassions I was lucky enough to hear him speak and see how he interacted with people. What a presence. His humanity, his decency, his keen intellect were something to behold. We'll miss you Frank! Thanks for 93 years of being a part of the solution. You are a true inspiration!

    Posted by Seth Anderson-Oberman, 03/11/2010 3:46pm (5 years ago)

  • I was saddened to read of the death of Frank Lumpkin.

    I did not know Frank. I became aquainted with the good work done by Frank while reading the book, "Always Bring A Crowd; The story of Frank Lumpkin, steelworker." I obtained the book from an Internet bookseller after reading about it on The Podunk Blog.

    I am sure this excellent book was inadvertently omitted from mention in this article.

    "Always Bring A Crowd; The story of Frank Lumpkin, steelworker" is a rank and file "how-to" handbook.

    In lieu of making a donation as suggested I am giving six copies of "Always Bring A Crowd; The story of Frank Lumpkin, steelworker" to friends I work with in the peace and labor movements.

    Judy
    Duluth, Minnesota

    Posted by Judy, 03/11/2010 11:28am (5 years ago)

  • A giant in gentleness,but tough as steel rivets,one can't stop the tears of love,even to think of Frank Lumpkin.
    One thing was always on his presence: HIS LOVE FOR PAUL ROBESON.
    In a way,we can understand his need to be at Peekskill,because the selfless soul of Robeson certainly
    included brother Lumpkin in his "I" in "Here I Stand".
    Where working-class heroes "live the life" as Robeson and Lumpkin did,we know it,as eternity does.
    We saw and heard him in St. Louis,spreading eternal love,in his eighties,once again.We know,that where you find the workers fighting for a better life,"its there you'll find Frank Lumpkin".

    Posted by E.E.W.Clay, 03/11/2010 10:07am (5 years ago)

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