When we think about movements that change the course of history, we naturally think of their leaders. Yet every movement is dependent on unsung heroes — creative, dedicated and passionate people who devote their energy to the cause, beneath the glare of the camera. With the passing of Frank Watkins this month, RainbowPush lost one of the greatest of its heroes — and I lost a piece of my soul. Frank was more than a friend; he was my brother for 52 years in the struggle.

A graduate of divinity school, Frank joined me in 1969 as we were putting together Operation Breadbasket in Chicago. He helped to develop the corporate covenants that we signed with major corporations, getting them to commit to hire more Blacks, diversify their managerial ranks, invest in the Black and brown communities, and employ Black-owned banks. We also urged African Americans to patronize minority-owned businesses. It was no accident, Frank later noted, that Chicago is considered the center of Black business.”

Frank was indefatigable, filled with ideas and energy and willing to work. A skilled college athlete, he was immediately invited to join our “Grapefruit League,” a regular pickup basketball game that we played weekly to blow off steam. By 1975, he became the spokesperson and communications director for PUSH — People United to Serve Humanity. He was far more than that. He was the indispensable right hand. A demon researcher and public scholar, he drafted press releases and worked on speeches and reports. He helped organize me — no small task. He was a constant source of ideas and memos on what comes next — how we should organize to best be effective.

In 1984, he was a critical part of my first presidential campaign, part press secretary, part strategist, part speechwriter, part researcher. He understood how vital the campaign was in registering new voters — Blacks, the young, the poor. In the 1988 campaign, his role expanded as did the campaign. Then he helped conceptualize the creation of RainbowPush and the effort to build a new progressive politics that would make America better.

Along the way, Frank somehow found the 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 combined with Frank Clemente to edit “Keep Hope Alive: Jesse Jackson’s 1988 Presidential Campaign,” which brought together the message, the agenda and the strategy of what was an historic campaign.

In 2002, Frank moved to Washington, D.C., to become the communications director and press secretary of my son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. He joined with Jesse to write “A More Perfect Union: Advancing New American Rights.”

That book provides the best example of Frank’s conceptual, political and strategic sense. He and my son traced the intertwined history of racial division and economic inequality. They then made the case for movements that would drive the call for new constitutional amendments grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, arguing that organizing around principles unleashed passion in a way that simple policy debates did not. A chapter was devoted to each of the basic rights — to quality health care, to housing, to education, to a clean environment, fair taxes, the right to a decent job, equality for women and the right to vote.

Steeped in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Frank was passionate about the importance of the right to vote — not only essential to any democracy, but also to any hope of building a more perfect union. He was astounded that the Constitution did not guarantee a right to vote — and that the states could control how legislators were chosen. Now, as Republicans echo Trump’s big lie that the 2020 election was stolen and systematically seek to pass measures to make voting more difficult, and to give legislatures power to overturn the results of elections that they don’t like, we all are coming to realize once more the importance of Frank’s passion.

Growing up in St. Louis, Frank did not come from a family of radicals. His passion for justice, his deep sense of faith, his experience with the civil rights movement brought him to the indispensable roles he played. In the beginning, his parents had doubts about his course. Over time, however, Frank convinced them — as he did so many — about the justice of his cause and the importance of his commitment.

Frank was active, creative and engaged to the terrible day when a combination of COVID and pneumonia proved too much. His spirit remains with us all: his faith in Americans, his fierce dedication to fighting for justice, his love for his country. A true hero and a true friend, he will be terribly missed.

Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr.

Founder and President, Rainbow PUSH Coalition, is one of America’s foremost civil rights, religious and political figures. Over the past forty years, he has played a pivotal role in virtually every movement...

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you I knew Frank when he was in college then Seminary at Anderson College. He was someone who I looked up to even then. Thank you for sharing part of his story.

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