An Organizer for Our Time: Frank Watkins and the Rainbow Coalition

Frank Watkins and Jesse Jackson.

Reverend Frank Watkins, a tremendous activist and a wonderful human being, died on September 16, one day shy of his 80th birthday.

Frank was one of those people whose names many don’t know but who had a profound impact on our politics. Most prominent as a political strategist and collaborator with the Rev. Jesse Jackson during the latter’s 1980s campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination, Frank was a son, servant, thinker, writer, strategist, mentor, teacher, organizer, commentator, athlete, friend, educational benefactor to countless folks who needed help‑ and a teetotaler.

I could list hundreds of famous and not so famous people and those just trying to get to another day that he gave support, advice and intellectual grounding to. But I’d still leave scores out.

Frank had a quiet, deliberate, thoughtful, unassuming manner. He never came across as a know-it-all or spoke down to people. When someone asked him a question that they were uncertain about the answer or felt they needed validation, Frank would often respond, “Well, you don’t need me to answer that question, you know the answer.” Or, “You should think that through.”

He was an avid Chicago Bulls fan and lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan. If you visited his DC apartment, you were greeted by a life-sized cutout of Michael Jordan and a basketball signed by many players from the 1991 championship team. One of his favorite moments was getting his mom a Cardinals jersey with her name and the number 100 for her 100th birthday. He was disappointed that he couldn’t get Willard Scott to announce her 100th birthday on his Smucker’s Jam milestone birthday segment on the Today Show.

Frank was the only son of working class parents John Franklin Watkins and Mollie Ruby Fowler Watkins. They met at the First Church of God in north St. Louis. He didn’t tell me a lot about his father, but he’d talk about his mom, who he cared for and adored till her last day. She lived 106 years, 11 months and 13 days, 18-days before her 107th birthday.

His parents married on December 21, 1941 and Frank said he was conceived on their wedding night. His mom “endured a lot of nasty rumors by church people during her pregnancy because some thought he was conceived out of wedlock at a time when that was socially and religiously unacceptable.”  Ignoring such slights she served as the head of the church’s Nursery Department for 29 years.

To know Frank is to know he was his mother’s son.

Ruby was one of six children of a sharecropper. She began working in the fields when she was 5 or 6 years old, picking cotton, corn, and watermelons in Missouri and Arkansas. She went to school in the off-season in a one-room schoolhouse and graduated from the 8th grade in Nimmons, Arkansas.

She left Nimmons for St. Louis at age 15 to find a job.  Ruby often said, “They say Arkansas is the ‘Land of Opportunity’ and the first opportunity I got I left.”  She initially found a job in a shoe tannery in St. Louis, “a really stinky place” for about 6 months, but went back to Arkansas after becoming homesick. Ultimately she went back St. Louis and got a job at Carter Carburetor during WWII making $12 a week – where she worked for 19 years.

“I didn’t grow up in a political household,” Frank said. “My parents registered and voted for the first time in 1960—because I made them. I strongly recommended that they vote for Kennedy, and I think they did. I couldn’t vote in 1960 because the 26th Amendment lowering the voting age to 18 wasn’t added to the Constitution until 1971.”

Frank’s mom wasn’t a “religious” person or a “church lady.” Ruby didn’t wear her religion on her sleeve but she regularly attended church and raised her son in the church. Frank describes her as “a loving and caring person; she didn’t discriminate against anyone; she respected everyone; she was inclusive of others; she was tolerant of other peoples’ weaknesses; and she was non-judgmental.  While she may not have understood all our social and cultural differences of race, color, ethnicity and sexual orientation she did her best to treat everyone with dignity and respect.  She lived her faith.”

Frank graduated from O’Fallon Technical High School in 1961 as a star athlete. His ambition was to be a professional baseball player. The Philadelphia Phillies had offered him a scholarship so the Church of God affiliated Anderson University wasn’t in his plan at first. But then Anderson University informed him that retired Los Angeles Dodgers star pitcher Carl Erskine had been named baseball coach there, so he changed his mind.

He played baseball, football, and basketball at Anderson. He recalled in an alumni profile, “Even in my sophomore and junior years I still wanted to play professional baseball. But because of the college and the influence it had, I began to think seriously about what I wanted to do with my life. Suppose I don’t make the big time—then what am I going to do?” That led him to the ministry.

Frank graduated in 1965 with a degree in sociology. Three years later, in 1968, he received his Master of Divinity. It was at seminary that he started thinking about “politics from a moral and theological point of view.”

“You can feed hungry people for the rest of your life and not do as much good or as much damage as one of 535 Senators and Congressmen sitting in Washington and voting,” said Frank. “They affect the feeding of hundreds of millions of people. I realized that if you’re going to affect the lives of people, then you have to deal with the structures. You do that through politics.”

While in college Frank participated in “taking over a class from the professor at the conservative seminary and putting together the curriculum around Tillich, Barth, Kierkegaard, Whitehead and other radical biblical scholars and theologians.” He participated in the antiwar and workers’ rights movements and got his first arrest for engaging in nonviolent protests. That activism is probably why five churches rejected his application to be their preacher.

Hurt by those rejections he moved to Chicago and became a pastor in a storefront ministry on “Skid Row” in the depressed Uptown District. In May 1969 at 30 years old he did volunteer work for Operation Breadbasket where he met 31 year old Jesse Jackson, a little more than a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The two men became allies and friends from that point on and competitors on the basketball court in Jackson’s “Grapefruit League” which included the likes of Marvin Gaye. Frank had a wicked round ball game. Jackson’s children grew up calling him “Uncle Frank.”

Reverend hired Frank on the day Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) was founded, December 25, 1971. He started off as the suburban coordinator, “organizing white folks in the Chicago suburbs.”

About those early days, Frank said, “We were doing hunger programs and food distribution centers, so to raise money I would get suburban churches and synagogues to donate food to the food pantries. Making hunger illegal was one of our priorities – that’s how I got into politics.”

Frank worked with Jackson on a voter registration and political education/agitation project around presidential elections called Third Force, and encouraged Jesse to run for president. He worked through Jesse’s 1984 and ’88 campaigns and the founding of the Rainbow Coalition (later Rainbow/PUSH) as national campaign press secretary, political director, and policy director.

Frank helped write or edit not only some of Jackson’s most memorable speeches but also several of Jackson’s books: Keep Hope Alive, Straight From the Heart, and Legal Lynching: Racism, Injustice and the Death Penalty (co-written by Jesse Jr.) Frank was also a source for countless books and articles written about Jackson and progressive and Democratic Party politics.

In the 51 years he worked with Jackson he never minded being behind the scenes. He preferred it that way. He said, “We have the same goals, but we play different roles.”

As a speechwriter, he said his proudest moment was in 1984 when he stood on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco listening to Jackson deliver a speech he had helped write; he felt similar pride when Jackson delivered his 1988 convention speech in Atlanta, likening the Rainbow’s social movement coalition campaign to a quilt, whose beauty and integrity depend on the unity of its diverse “patches”.

I met Frank in the mid-eighties.

I was South Carolina coordinator for Jackson’s ’88 presidential campaign. Frank and Steve Cobble, our national delegate coordinator, had the job of guiding an inexperienced, wannabe radical.

Jackson won the state caucus, and we controlled 64 percent of the delegates at the state convention. Frank gave me two tasks: to push state party leaders into naming a black chair, and to choose delegates to the national convention who reflected our coalition. He and Steve told me that the most important thing when selecting a delegate was to make sure the person pledged to support Jackson at the convention until he released them.

Black elected officials and white party leaders fought us at every turn. Neither black nor white state leaders wanted to cede power to Jackson’s coalition at any level.

We lost out on the first task. (Jaime Harrison became the first African American chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party in 2013.) On the second task, the South Carolina Legislative Black Caucus members all angled to be chosen. I asked them, “Will you support Jackson until he releases you?” Most said no. State Senator Kay Patterson went public declaring, “Hell no! Jesse Jackson ain’t gonna be president.” I rejected all of the Black Caucus members. They called the national headquarters to get me fired. Problem was, they called Frank, and Frank had my back.

Obviously, Jackson didn’t win the nomination. Yet a measure of success was a rules change that ended the winner-take-all system in Democratic presidential primary races, giving future insurgent campaigns a fighting chance. When Ron Brown, who led Jackson’s ’88 convention team in Atlanta, was elected chairman of the DNC in 1989, I thought the corporate Brown’s accession would lock progressive activists into a corporate party. Frank, a devotee of his fellow St. Louisan Democratic Socialist Michael Harrington, saw politics as a constant struggle and spoke of the “left wing of the possible.”

Frank also served as campaign manager for Jesse Jackson, Jr.’s successful congressional race in 1995, worked as his communications and policy director for 17 years, and co-authored A More Perfect Union.

He ran Al Sharpton’s 2004 campaign for president for a little while,—until Sharpton embraced GOP trickster Roger Stone, along with his money and operatives. “I said we should have nothing to do with this ultra-rightwing sleazeball,” Frank said. When Frank died, he still had never been paid by Sharpton; among his papers are numerous unanswered letters challenging the Reverend on his legal and moral responsibilities: “‘for the laborer is worthy of his hire’ … I joined your effort in 2004 because I believed that’s what your presidential campaign was about – lifting the lives and conditions of the poor. My professional training and my life’s work is a witness to my faithfulness to that ministry.”

Frank continued to demand payment for himself, writing Phil Griffin of MSNBC and Joy Reid, as well, about Sharpton’s moral failing to pay his debts. Sharpton never paid up. He now owes the estate of Frank Watkins $58,000.

Frank kept the faith throughout his life and work: “… my family’s values and my religion taught me to care about the hungry in the richest nation in the history of the world; my education eventually led me to the Agricultural Department and its programs and policies.  When my family’s values and my religious training discovered illiteracy, it was reasonable to go to the Department of Education to see if its programs and education policies were solving the problem of illiteracy – they weren’t.  When my family’s values and religious training discovered racial and gender discrimination, logic told me to go to the Justice Department and discover how it was or was not administering and enforcing voting rights, discrimination in employment and equal educational opportunity policies – it wasn’t doing a very good job; and when my family’s values and religious convictions led me to be concerned about peace in the world and just relations between nations, my training said go to the State and Defense Departments and decide if the diplomatic policies at State and the guns, bombs and jet fighter policies at Defense contained the right balance to provide the best chance of achieving peace and justice around the world.  And when my family’s values, religious perspective and education viewed Congress, I wanted to know if the laws they were passing were fair and just and would bring about the American Dream and the “Beloved Community” that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. desired, because in the end, as Dr. Cornel West articulates, “justice is what love looks like in public.”

Frank was a model for all of us in the fight for justice. I’ll miss him terribly.

Before his death, Frank set up a fund to bolster a public education and lobby campaign to expand voter rights and push for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote, issues on which he had been working tirelessly.

Those wishing to advance these goals may send a donation to: The Trust of Frank E. Watkins,
P.O. Box 70925,
Washington, DC 20024.

Kevin Alexander Gray is a civil rights organizer in South Carolina and author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike! The Fundamentals of Black Politics (CounterPunch/AK Press) and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He is the editor, along with JoAnn Wypijewski and Jeffrey St. Clair, of Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence from CounterPunch Books. He can be reached at