“The Damned Don’t Cry: Pages from the Life of a Black Prisoner and Organizer” -- a Review of a book by Frank Edgar Chapman, Jr.
Frank Chapman’s book should be on the shelf with the Autobiography of Malcolm X and Soledad Brother.
“Chapman is very clear that it was the massive movement to free Angela Davis which paved the way to freedom for him and other political prisoners.”
I’ve been waiting for this book. I first read an earlier draft of Frank Chapman’s memoirs in 2014. I thought then and now that this needed to get published, first and foremost, because the revolutionary movement needs it. As a result of the prison abolition movement, there is a broad awareness of the injustice of mass incarceration, but this book sees the revolutionary side of the misery.
There’s a specific section of society which needs this book: those in prison. Chapman relates how becoming a communist led him not into his frustration, but out of it. The book belongs in the genre with the Autobiography of Malcolm X and George Jackson’s Soledad Brother as a work that needs to get inside the prisons, because the meat of Chapman’s book is his politicization while in prison from 1961 to 1975.
Reading the book, I thought of the poem by Ho Chi Minh made famous in the U.S. when George Jackson said, “The dragon is coming” in his last dying words, after being gunned down by a prison guard. Ho’s poem reads:
Prisoners loosed from prison can build their country
From great misfortune arises true fidelity
The most troubled souls are the most virtuous
When the prison doors open, the real dragons emerge.
Frank Chapman is one of those dragons.
Imprisonment as a young man
The first chapters walk through the experience of the community and culture of Black, working-class Saint Louis in the 1940s and 50s. Born in 1942, the oldest child of 12, the indomitable spirit of his mother and the bebop musical genius of his father are the juice that formed his personality. He describes the life of hustle he developed to deal with the poverty that resulted from his father’s drug addiction and imprisonment. His engaging writing style draws you in, so that his tale of surviving the penal and mental health system, his own addictions and criminality doesn’t read like a tragedy.
In 1961, Chapman was involved in a robbery in which a man died. He had been hospitalized several years earlier for addition to drugs and alcohol and had escaped from the treatment center. Had he been white, the court would have taken that into account. Instead, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life plus 50 years in prison. There was never a presumption of innocence. As he put it, for him and the other Black prisoners awaiting trial, “Your very life is in the balance and like it or not we were all being legally hung, it was just a question of whether they were going to hang us high or low.”
Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks, noted that time in prison is not lost because you have time to study and to write. Although not sent to prison for political activity, shortly after arriving at the Missouri maximum security penitentiary in Jefferson City, at the end of 1961, Chapman desired to read law in order to get out of the hell he found himself in. He spent over a year getting the administration to allow him to go to school full time. Then, in less than another year, he had his GED. He began to read voraciously, and soon became one of the jailhouse lawyers.
“Chapman desired to read law in order to get out of the hell he found himself in.”
He also inhaled science, soon deciding he was an atheist, seeing “… human beings as a force of nature governed by the same physical and chemical laws that govern the sun, moon and stars.” A white, working class communist -- in prison for blowing something up during a Teamsters strike -- gave him his first Marxist literature, a book called A Marxist Handbook. This was an introduction to the philosophical, political and economic writings of Marx, Engels, and Lenin.
He said reading the Communist Manifesto played the critical role. “I was no longer helpless, now I could consciously be part of a revolutionary movement designed to empower the wretched of the earth.”
Soon he was organizing a Marxist-Leninist study group. Not just a debating society, what they called the “Collective” “took on certain practical tasks such as fighting to desegregate the prison facilities, to unite Black and white prisoners around issues of common concern, to get Marxist literature in the prison through legitimate channels and start PE (political education) classes among the prisoners, to fight for higher education programs for prisoners and establish strong links to the progressive movements on the outside.”
Segregation in prison
The system of racist national oppression followed Chapman into Jefferson City. In the Black halls, there were four to six men in cells, but white men were in cells of one or two. Black prisoners had the worst jobs, and the terrible conditions in the segregated areas led to more Blacks dying.
Chapman didn’t just help inmates file lawsuits for their own cases. He learned the relationship between civil rights, civil liberties and criminal justice. In his first initiative, Frank drafted a complaint based on the First Amendment right to pursue knowledge and an education; to express your beliefs in writing without fear of reprisal; but also the issue of racial discrimination and segregated facilities. Soon after filing it, the U.S. district court issued an order to the warden to respond.
This was met with stiff resistance by the warden. In the ensuing years, the warden unleashed violence to punish the Black prisoners, to get the racist white prisoners to attack them, and the Blacks and racist whites to fight each other. A number of Black prisoners and some whites died in the violence stoked by the warden. The drama unfolded until there was an uprising in the prison, which was put down with beatings, mace and the threat of the National Guard. The prisoners were able to emerge with a victory in part because the whites joined together with the Blacks against the warden. In later years, the warden unleashed another assault by guards on Chapman, breaking three ribs and other bones. Today, he suffers from arthritis as a result of that beating.
Chapman proved it was possible to win victories even inside that prison: the actions taken led to the end of segregation and over-crowdedness; the winning of First Amendment rights to read literature on national liberation and socialism; and the right to pursue college education.
The impact of the Black Liberation Movement
Through Freedomways magazine, started by leading Black Communist Party (CP) members Esther Cooper Jackson, Jack O’Dell and others, Chapman established movement contacts in the outside world. Over the years in prison, Freedomways and the Daily World, the CPUSA’s paper, published a number of his writings. Herschel Walker, the Black CP district organizer in Saint Louis, was the living link to the movement in Missouri, and started a defense committee to free Chapman.
Chapman is very clear that it was the massive movement to free Angela Davis which paved the way to freedom for him and other political prisoners. From the CP, he learned about Davis leading the founding of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. The National Alliance said Chapman was a political prisoner because he had started advocating for civil rights while in prison. Clearly, he suffered attacks by the prison for his efforts.
The National Alliance took up his case, and after they had helped free him, he became the leader of the Saint Louis chapter, building it up through community and labor struggles to becoming one of the largest chapters in the country. Eventually he became the executive director and moved to New York City. Years later, the CP leadership had the Alliance dissolved as a national group, but several chapters -- including Louisville, Kentucky as well as Chicago -- refused. When Frank moved to Chicago in 2011, he found the organization here still continuing under the leadership of Josephine Wyatt, Clarice Durham and Ted Pearson. He joined in with them, and today has helped rebuilt the movement here and nationally. As a result, this fall the National Alliance will be re-founded in Chicago.
“The National Alliance said Chapman was a political prisoner because he had started advocating for civil rights while in prison.”
The Black liberation movement and the socialist movement freed Frank Chapman, and in turn he has made a lifelong commitment to those intertwined struggles. After leaving the CP ten years ago, Chapman has joined a newer Marxist-Leninist group, Freedom Road Socialist Organization. He has joined our central committee and is helping to guide and train a new generation of Black communists.
Working with Frank over the past five years, I have seen something that highlights the importance of this book. In his role leading the struggle for community control of the Chicago police, Frank instantly commands the respect and trust of those in and around the movement who have been wrongfully convicted or who have wrongfully convicted family members in prison. When he points the way forward, they believe in him. This book will only cement further the status he has in their struggle.
Joe Iosbaker is a longtime activist living in Chicago.
This article previously appeared in FightBack! News.
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