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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 430

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This is the grave of Frank Lumpkin.

Born in 1916 to sharecroppers near Washington, Georgia, Lumpkin grew up in Florida, near Orlando. As a boy, he worked very hard. He was hauling sacks of paving stones for his uncle by the time he was 6 years old. In Orlando, his parents worked in the orange groves and he joined them. He quit school entirely at the age of 15 to work in the oranges. He also became a boxer. He was quite good in the ring. Earning the name of “KO Lumpkin,” he was known as the “Heavyweight Champion of the South,” though I don’t really know quite what that meant in the black boxing world of the 1930s. Suffice it to say, he was good at boxing.

Like many young African-Americans during these years, Lumpkin was not satisfied with the poverty and humiliations of the Jim Crow South. This was the Great Migration. So, in 1940, Lumpkin moved north, joining an older brother who worked in a steel mill in Buffalo. He would also work in an aircraft factory and in construction in those early years. By the end of the war, the entire family, including his parents, were in Buffalo.

Lumpkin’s sister Jonnie is who introduced Frank to communism. She had gotten to know some CP members, was interested in their ideology of class consciousness and anti-racist politics, and introduced her family to them. No one took up the class struggle like Frank. Their home became a CP center in Buffalo and they worked on issues such as evictions from homes and racism in the community, all with an eye on rising fascism abroad. He joined the Young Communist League and then the CPUSA.

Like any good communist, Lumpkin wanted to join the military when the U.S. entered World War II, as much as to help the Soviets as the Americans. But he couldn’t. When he was a child, some friends dared him to touch an electrical wire. He did and was electrocuted. He lost two fingers. So military service was out Instead, he entered the Merchant Marine and stayed in it until 1948, leaving it only when the ship he was working on was sold while he was in Greece and he was stranded.

So, Lumpkin returned to Buffalo and reentered the steel mills. The next year, he was protesting racism on a cruise ship that stopped in Buffalo. Evidently cruise ships had different itineraries in 1949 than today. Anyway, he was beaten by the police and arrested. Rather than plead out, he determined to hear his case tried before an all-white jury. He was acquitted.

In 1950, Paul Robeson announced he was going to play a concert in Peekskill, New York. This now legendary moment took place at the height of the Second Red Scare. A racist, fascist mob turned up to attack Robeson and beat anyone up who joined him. One of the men who was there to protect Robeson and allow the concert to go on was Frank Lumpkin. Robeson and Lumpkin both could have easily died that night, but they did not.

In the early 1950s, Lumpkin moved to Chicago, where the steel work was more prevalent. He worked at an International Harvester owned steel plant called Wisconsin Steel for about 30 years. But in March 1980, just as the new era of union-busting began in this nation, Lumpkin and his coworkers showed up on the job to find the gates locked and their pensions and final paychecks stolen. Lumpkin led the Save Our Jobs committee that fought against the closure and the wage and pension theft. IH claimed they owed the workers nothing because they had sold the plant and it was the other company who closed it, but this was all obfuscation. Finally, in 1997, courts awarded the workers $17 million in pension money that was rightfully theirs. Probably no one had done more to make this happen than Frank Lumpkin.

Lumpkin was also an important member of the campaign to get Harold Washington elected mayor of Chicago. He rounded up labor votes for Washington. It’s important to remember how amazing that victory was, with the Daley machine and its core of white ethnic voters pretty outraged by someone like Washington taking power. Washington repaid Lumpkin by naming him to task forces on the steel industry and displaced workers. Through all of this, Lumpkin remained a fully committed communist and member of CPUSA. He did not hide this. For him, the struggle for racial and economic justice were one and the same. He was involved in unemployment movements, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees, and the Alliance of Retired Americans, all the while serving on CPUSA’s National Committee and traveling to communist nations to promote the cause. Perhaps his last political act was working hard to get Tammy Duckworth elected to Congress when he was 90 years old. He died in 2010.

Here is a cool interview of Lumpkin, part of a large oral history collection of African-Americans. Even lists his favorite foods: rice, grits, pork chops, and ham! He also took the less than controversial position that spring is a good season.

Frank Lumpkin is buried in Forest Home Cemetery, Forest Park, Illinois, in the communist section of the graveyard next to the Haymarket martyrs. His wife Beatrice survives him and is still an active writer in labor and communist causes. That there’s was an interracial marriage was pretty remarkable for that time and place.

If you would like this series to visit other American radicals, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Clara Lemlich is in West Babylon, New York and Howard Zinn is in Newton, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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