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A Lifelong Organizer’s Story Comes to Life in “The Damned Don’t Cry”

Former prisoner and organizer Frank Chapman Jr.’s remarkable memoir offers hope far beyond his own story.

Activist Frank Chapman speaks out against President Trump's executive order that temporarily blocks refugees and travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, at a press conference outside the Department of Homeland Security in Chicago, Illinois, on February 1, 2017.

The first thing to know about Frank Chapman Jr.’s remarkable memoir, The Damned Don’t Cry: Pages From the Life of a Black Prisoner and Organizer, is that Chapman was sentenced to life and 50 years in the Missouri State Prison, and spared himself the death penalty by pleading guilty to murder: “Without going into graphic details at this time, let me say that I was accused of robbing a shoe repair shop where someone was murdered,” he writes early in the book. That Chapman arose from the deepest pit of the American penal system to become an intellectual and influential activist offers a ray of hope far beyond himself and his own story.

Raised in a troubled home in St. Louis, he realized early that he did not want to be a mill worker, toiling 12-hour days to feed a family. Unfortunately, Chapman was pulled down by racism and bad associates by age 11. In and out of reform school, unsuccessfully rehabilitated by religious and education authorities, he drifted from job to job, and turned to holding up stores. Bulletins urging police to shoot Chapman on sight failed to stop him from visiting his wife, and the two went out together to see the Harry Belafonte bank robbery/caper film, Odds Against Tomorrow. A few days later, Chapman was arrested.

Prison was Chapman’s first university. Soon he was moving from world history to physics, philosophy and back to history. He became a teacher of Black history to other prisoners, and for good reason: W.E.B. Du Bois became his idol. He wrote a book manuscript, never published, on “science and Africa.” Most crucially, he took up Freedomways magazine — the very best of the Popular Front that lived on into the 1970s, a generation after the glory era of anti-fascism had ended in McCarthyism, government repression and disappointment in the Soviet Union. Within pockets of American popular culture — from folk music to the narratives of liberal Hollywood films — the motifs of the Popular Front remained, nowhere more than in the African American communities of artists and intellectuals. The milieu around Freedomways would lead him, as the 1960s moved onward, toward the Communist Party. But he had obstacles to face first.

A natural leader of his fellow prisoners, he faced all manner of repression, including from incarcerated white nationalists. As he became a prominent educator, he was even shot up with the psychotropic drug polixin by prison authorities. His lawyer, he insists, threatened the prison doctor with a lawsuit, ending the use of the drug on him at least, if not also on others.

Fortunately, Chapman had developed many contacts on the outside. His admirers included the famed St. Louis African American activist and Communist Hershel Walker, who personally built up the Frank Chapman Defense Committee. The international campaign to free Angela Davis further amplified his hopes. Meanwhile, Chapman had already learned how to file his own briefs.

He won — not parole, but a place in the Moberly Area Community College within the prison. After 11 years in maximum security facilities, he was on his way out … almost. By this time, he could play piano, read music and even write his own music. He was also a published author in the pages of Freedomways. From classic literature as well as his own experience, he was developing what he called a unique “Philosophy for the Oppressed.”

And he got more help. Leftists in St. Louis turned out to greet him on his furlough, filling him with hope and new ideas. He became an intellectual and cultural celebrity of sorts, meanwhile gaining his bachelor of arts in 1972, but still tethered to the system. Finally paroled, he began graduate school at Washington University, focusing mostly on anthropology and philosophy, for a degree never completed.

Chapman moves at this point in his memoir into a larger and sometimes muddled narrative of the Black struggles in the 70s over legal strategies and global alliances, a story arguably too complex to be explained with precision. He lays it all out to the best of his ability, nevertheless, and in doing so, makes the case that the 70s was an era of rising struggle against repression — an era followed by the success of repression.

The degree of struggle along the way is remarkable. Chapman obviously relishes his connections with the legendary Anne Braden, a leader of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare. After he joins the Board of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, he travels with her to speak to white miners, among others, about the need to fight against workplace injustice collectively, across racial lines. He recalls this part of his life with a sense of personal (but also political) triumph. Sadly, and more or less as he joins the leadership of the Communist Party, the 1980s lay just ahead.

From the standpoint of leftist history, this may also be considered the last moment of major influence or heft of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) itself, long since battered by disillusionment with Russia, soon to face the disintegration of the Soviet Union itself. The CPUSA held on for a moment, with its outsize role in defending the African American community and capacity to mobilize unions.

By these means, as Chapman recalls, the CPUSA milieu gathered old and new allies, exerting influences even upon sections of the Democratic Party. He proudly states in his book, “We reached tens to thousands of people.” Most especially — he could have added — at the local level in scattered cities like St. Louis, where strength had been patiently built.

By 1989, a limit had been long since reached and Chapman seems to have realized or at least intuited it. His drinking had become out of control again. His marriage was falling apart. He went to work for the 1199 National Health Care Workers’ Union, but could not make a second marriage, and a new fatherhood, work. He went into rehab and ended up in Los Angeles, supporting the African National Congress. The death of his friend Hershel Walker, who was killed in a car crash delivering petitions to a workers’ protest, seemed more than symbolic.

Chapman pulls himself together around 2011-12. He had already built up a small cleaning business in St. Louis, but found himself drinking with customers and associates in bars, and decided to move first to Chicago, then go on to New York. On the way to the train to Manhattan, he stopped at a Chicago bar and ended up in Cook County Hospital. He had at last taken his last drink, and he was 68.

Drying out, he got deeply involved in the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, becoming a field organizer and convening public meetings on local police criminality and torture. Mass marches in the city, political pressure to create a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC), and above all, the successful effort at unity among widely diverse populations in Chicago, seem to mark the climax of a remarkable political life leading right up to the present. He can proudly say that local candidates endorsing the demands of the CPAC gained 176,000 votes in the most recent elections, and the work continues. “We are in the upswing of a new movement,” he writes, “so let us not scratch our heads wondering where it is going and how long it will last.”

As the book closes, the memoirist is still organizing against police malfeasance, but now with a massive movement around him. “A few twenty-four hours-ago,” he recalls, “some young students from DePaul University asked me when did I join the struggle and it made me think: First I was born in the struggle and then I joined it.” Chapman is an unshakeable Marxist-Leninist, but above all, an organizer.

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