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

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 parents, Hattie and Elmo Lumpkin, 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.

Video: Remembering Frank Lumpkin, WTTW Chicago

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 (SOAR)  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 were 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




John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, where he attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs. He currently lives in Chicago.