From firstname.lastname@example.org Mon Mar 13 06:53:51 2000
Book Review: Always Bring A Crowd: The Story of Frank Lumpkin, Steelworker, by Bea Lumpkin
By John Woodford <email@example.com>, 12 March 2000
Always Bring A Crowd: The Story of Frank Lumpkin,
This is the story of an extraordinary "common man." Sounds like a logical impossibility, doesn't it? But in Always Bring a Crowd, the story of steelworker Frank Lumpkin, you will meet such a man, a hero for our times. You will read a life story that emerges from the blast furnace of American history-the part of American history that is generally shielded from our eyes. (And speaking of shielding, if the AFL-CIO doesn't promote and mass-produce this book, it's not serious about gaining strength in American politics.)
In these days of wealth and luxury for a few, we all see the decline of our cities, farms, industrial base, schools, health care system and pensions. Our mass media, our public intellectuals, our politicians wring their hands and say, Too bad, but there is no way to counter the "global" and "high-tech" forces sending the majority of us on this pell-mell descent in a handbasket bound for economic hell. Or they say, Just be patient and await the "trickle down." Or they ignore the growing numbers of poorly paid and insecure salary and wage workers and say, That's just the way things are.
Yet here stands the example of Frank Lumpkin. His life story shows us how to get out of the handbasket and start building up a better society. It will take union power. No other social force has its potential influence. Lumpkin demonstrated this in the campaign he's best known for in the Chicago area-the 17-year fight that prevented a giant steel firm and its holding companies from cheating 2,700 workers in a corrupt plant shutdown scheme.
That's just his longest fight, however. The book recounts the effective role he has played in every other kind of social justice struggle our country has seen, including police brutality, oppression of women, fair housing, fair employment and tenants rights, among others.
"Bring a crowd." Yes. We all know that it is masses of people in action who make the turning points in history. Since might concentrated in a few hands usually does wrong, everyday folk must organize in large numbers if they are to defend themselves and advance against elite powers that threaten their freedom, well-being and survival. But the insight, charisma, patience, and motivation needed to "bring a crowd" takes creativity and genius possessed by very few. As union man Ed Sadlowski says of Lumpkin in the foreword, "Maybe, if you're lucky enough, you'll cross paths with someone like him within your own lifetime."
What path is Lumpkin on? As this book shows, people like Frank Lumpkin don't just happen. Born in 1916, Lumpkin comes from a family whose upward mobility began on plantations and sharecropping land in Georgia and then in the orange groves of Florida at a time when Afro-Americans did most of the picking. Big, powerful and smart-and fortified by a family that prized work, study and standing up against racism-Frank worked in fields, chauffeured, boxed as "K.O." Lumpkin and moved to Buffalo and became a steelworker in the early 1940s.
Lumpkin is one of 10 brothers and sisters. And Always Bring A Crowd is a family saga as well as a story that represents the best qualities of the Afro-American people and Americans in general. All of the Lumpkins appear throughout the book, and author Bea Lumpkin, Frank's wife, paints their portraits and captures their characters in speech as deftly as any novelist.
Led by the examples of their parents, who never quit struggling to improve the family's conditions, and of young activist siblings like sister Jonnie, most of the Lumpkins got involved in union and other progressive work, seveeral around and in the Communist Party of the United States. The lynching in uniform of Taft Rollins, a Black soldier, was an catalyst that set them on the path of seeing a different socioeconomic system as key in fighting racism in the many forms they encountered it.
The book's structure, the way the author tells the story, is unique. The ordinary chronology of biography is there. But also, assembled like a collage, are the voices of workers and neighbors and friends joining those of the family. Only one of the 10 Lumpkin siblings broke into white-collar work, and even that sister, Bessie Mae, stayed true to her class roots and worked for labor unions and the CPUSA.
Those who know of the American Communist movement only through the "Russian spies" and "dupes of aliens" and "fellow travelers" stereotypes of the J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy/Nixon/Reagan line, or from the more liberal strains of anti-communism, will get an entirely different and more complex view of that history in this book.
Basically, the destructive forces that distinguish this century-racism, world war, corporate tyranny-tempered into steel Lumpkin's qualities of courage, optimism and philosophical development through great reading and bold action. He has fought consistently for racial justice, jobs, the right to vote, the right to adequate education and working conditions, for an end to world war, colonialism, and weapons of mass destruction. And these objectives led him into the Communist, labor and peace movement.
Bea Lumpkin captures the excitement of the challenges that brought the best out in Frank and his fellow workers, spouses and neighbors as they fought in word and deed to make the corporations obey the law and the union contract. The company kept shifting corporate skins like a snake, but Frank and the young labor attorney Tom Geoghegan (GAY-gen) finally cornered it. The workers won $4 million, thanks to bankruptcy laws designed to help corporations skip out workers and their communities, but that was only about a sixth of what they were owed. (Also see Geoghegan's Which Side Are You On?)
"I'm a very patient man," Lumpkin said at the end of it all. Of course it wasn't the end. Lumpkin was active in Chicago politics, ran for unsuccessfully for the state legislature and continues to fight for job-creation and living-wage programs to this day.
Along the way, Frank and Bea visited Chile, Cuba, Mozambique, Senegal, Western Europe and other countries. His observations about these countries, their economies, the labor movement and progressive politics are travelogues from a worker's point of view.
The worker's point of view is a far broader and wiser perspective than the caricatures like Archie Bunker, Ralph Kramden and the wolf-whistling, racist and profane construction workers of our commercials and movies. As Lumpkin sees it, that point of view emanates from the science of Marxism. He wanted answers to the social conditions he saw in life, and when it comes to society, the top science is Marxism-not as a source of doctrine and dogma, but as a way to study "like mathematics," in which "if you put down the right figures, you get the right answer." That may sound simplistic, but thanks to the many dialogues between Frank and other workers that Bea recorded, readers will see that plain talk can convey the same probing of ideas and ethics that one finds in the classical Greek philosophers.
Here is Lumpkin is a sample dialogue between Frank and his brother-in-law, Al Ellis.
Al: "You think you could get a six-hour day under capitalism?"
Frank: "Yes, I think so. It will be a struggle, but we will get it. We need a committee. A lot of guys have ideas but don't know how to put it in words. Unity. That's the main lesson I hope the Wisconsin Steel workers learned from Save Our Jobs. When workers unite, they can win. I told Geoghegan, I'm as interested in the struggle as in winning the money. I'm interested in workers learning their strength, not just someone being a 'smart aleck.' The money ain't the whole thing. The fight isn't just for money. It's for justice for working people. It's not simple to separate the two.
"There is a solution to the problems and together we can find it.... I have proof because we have done it."
Imagine what achievements could be won on a national scale if the confused, disheartened and insecure working people of this country had a leader, a movement, an organization with this political effectiveness.
One thing is for sure: the big industrial, investment and banking firms in this country have imagined just that. So it will be hard to get Lumpkin's story out, regardless of how wonderfully told this riveting story is.
The powers that be would rather that not many of us know what it takes to be able to "bring a crowd." It takes a Frank Lumpkin. A worker learned and intelligent who can speak the language of the neighborhoods, factories, shops and farmlands, and who can unite men and women and uit the Red and Yellow and the Brown, Black and White, as we all sang in the children's hymn of old.
Copyright (c) 2000 John Woodford. All Rights Reserved.
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