When it comes to the civil rights movement, courage and commitment have no color, and that’s why we’re profiling Frank Watkins this week. Let me start on a personal note. I first met Frank on the air where we were both commentators on the Jeff Santos Show, a radio show now streaming online. During his introductions to Frank, Jeff would often note his long affiliation with the Reverend Jesse Jackson, then we would discuss a number of current and historical topics, and I would often hand over the mic to Frank, although he always expressed a split. approach.
Appearing with him was a learning experience because he was such a shrewd and insightful activist and scholar in politics. He was particularly knowledgeable about the machinations of the electoral process, much of this information gathered in conjunction with Reverend Jackson and from various organizations and institutions.
It was from Jeff that I learned that Frank had joined the ancestors on September 16, a day before his 80th birthday in Washington, DC after a long illness. We had not been on the air together but only once since the outbreak of the pandemic. According to the Reverend Jackson, Frank was suffering from a combination of COVID and pneumonia which “proved too much”.
Frank, the Minister continued, was a ‘true hero and a true friend…and he will be sorely missed’. He was in memory of Jackson, a fighter against voter suppression and for black equity and died “with his boots on”.
During the process of collecting vital statistics on Frank, very little about his early years was immediately available, but we do know that he was white and a graduate of Chicago Theological Seminary. He was among Jackson’s loyal aides arranging many of Jackson’s proposed corporate pacts that resulted in securing jobs for many black Americans.
“Frank was tireless, full of ideas and energy, and eager to work,” Jackson said in his published account of his comrade. “An experienced college athlete, he was immediately invited to join our Grapefruit League, a regular basketball game we played every week to let off steam. In 1975, he became spokesperson and director of communications for PUSH—People United to Serve Humanity. He was much more than that. He was the indispensable right arm. A demon researcher and public scholar, he wrote press releases and worked on speeches and reports. He helped me get organized – that was no small feat. He was a constant source of ideas and memos about what was next – how we should organize ourselves to be most effective. »
A moving tribute from Kevin A. Gray includes a poignant comment from Frank in which he said, “I didn’t grow up in a political household. My parents first registered and voted in 1960, because I created them. I urged them to 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.”
Gray added that 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 even offered him a scholarship. 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.
Betty Magness, Illinois political director for the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, called Frank a “political guru” and said her memories of him go back to when they taught political education classes. “Frank taught Research I and II and I taught Communications,” she said. “Alice Tregay and Leon Davis were the leaders. A large number of graduates were then elected.
Shelly Davis, national political director of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, remembers Frank as “part of the quilt that is now the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. I have known Frank for two decades, and his passion and commitment to equal suffrage has never waned.
Senator Jacqueline Collins (D-16th) is another who remembers Frank’s unwavering service. “Frank was a brilliant political strategist and a brave warrior for social justice,” she began. “It was an honor to work with him as he humbly sought to serve humanity. May he rest in peace and power.
Reverend Jackson picks up Frank’s journey in 1984, when he played a pivotal role in his presidential run. He said Frank was a true polymath, working tirelessly as “part secretary, part strategist, part speechwriter, part researcher. He understood how vital the campaign was to register new voters – black people, young people, poor people. During the 1988 campaign, his role expanded, as did the campaign. Then he helped conceptualize the creation of Rainbow PUSH and the effort to build a new progressive politics that would make America better. Along the way, Frank found time to help write and edit several books. He helped edit “Straight from the Heart,” a 1987 collection of my speeches, articles, and columns that he had often worked on in early drafts. After the 1988 campaign, he partnered with Frank Clemente to edit ‘Keep Hope Alive: Jesse Jackson’s 1988 Presidential Campaign’ which brought together the message, agenda and strategy of what was a landmark campaign.
In 2002, Frank moved to the nation’s capital where he became director of communications and press secretary for Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and later joined him to author “A More Perfect Union: Advancing New American Rights.”
For Alanna Ford, Executive Assistant to Reverend Jackson and Bishop Tavis Grant, National Executive Director, Frank “was always engaging and a wealth of information. He could write a book faster than we could blink,” she said. “We were always in awe of him because of the plethora of stories and statistics he was able to spout anytime or anywhere on any given subject. We all sought to emulate his memory and understanding of politics, religion and history. I saw ‘Uncle Frank’ in action, and he had a game.
Frank, in the estimation of the Reverend Cameron Barnes, National Director of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, “was the walking political encyclopedia. He was more than a Rainbow PUSH staff member. He was the backbone. He had every state charted, from population distribution to their last election results, and everything in between. From his home, he knew the political state of any American territory. He was, and still is for me, the pinnacle of political expertise.
These impressions were shared by the Reverend Paul Jakes, pastor of the New Tabernacle of Faith Baptist Church, who he said was a “voice calling for justice in this nation.” “Brother Frank Watkins was also a faithful minister of the gospel, fulfilling Dr. King’s dream that whites and blacks can work together, walk together, and stand up for justice together. Brother Frank didn’t have to work with Reverend Jackson, but he did. He could have easily blended into white society and been comfortable. On the contrary, Frank Watkins had the character and the will to shine his light. He was a real voice in the wilderness for justice.
Gray wrote that Frank, “growing up in St. Louis, Frank did not come from a family of radicals. His passion for justice, his strong sense of faith, his experience with the civil rights movement made him brought to the indispensable roles he played. At first his parents had doubts about his career path. Over time, however, Frank convinced them – as he did so many others – of the justice of his cause and the importance of his commitment campaign to expand voters’ rights and push for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote, issues on which he had worked tirelessly.Those who wish to advance these goals can send a donation to: The Trust of Frank E. Watkins, PO Box 70925, Washington, DC 20024.”