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Rev. Walter "Slim" Coleman, Chicago activist and community organizer, dies at 80

Chicago pastor, activist Walter "Slim" Coleman dies
Chicago pastor, activist Walter "Slim" Coleman dies 00:29

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The Rev. Walter "Slim" Coleman, a Chicago activist whose advocacy for Civil Rights and social justice causes dated back more than half a century, died Tuesday morning.

Coleman was 80. His passing was announced Tuesday by Healthy Hood Chicago, the nonprofit community organization operated by daughter Tanya Lozano.

Chicago Church Offers Refuge To Deportee
The Rev. Walter "Slim" Coleman stands outside his Adalberto United Methodist Church on West Division Street after banners were hung declaring the place a sanctuary August 15, 2006 in Chicago. Scott Olson / Getty Images

Coleman's activist and organizing work in Chicago dated back to the Civil Rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s.

A Texas native, Coleman was raised in Lubbock before entering Harvard University on a scholarship, according to a published obituary. He left Harvard a month before graduation to begin his work in activism, but did return to finish his education there almost 20 years later, his obit said.

In the 1960s, Coleman first went to Cleveland to work under the leadership of James Forman at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, his obit read. The predominantly Black college student organization practiced peaceful, direct-action protests that led to civil rights victories.

Coleman and Kathy Archibald – two white SNCC members – moved to Chicago in 1966 at Forman's advisement, with the idea in mind that poor white people in Chicago could be organized through the principles of Black Liberation, Coleman's obit said.

In Chicago, Coleman joined the activist organization Students for a Democratic Society. The headquarters were on the city's West Side near the Illinois Black Panther Party Headquarters on Madison Street, and Coleman got to know party Chairman Fred Hampton.

Coleman and Archibald went on to develop the People's Information Center in Lincoln Park – which worked with the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords activist group, led by activist Jose "Cha Cha" Jimenez, the obit said.

Coleman also worked with Hampton to help develop the Rainbow Coalition – a union of the Illinois Black Panther Party, the Young Lords, and the Young Patriots Organization, a leftist organization based in Uptown and made up primarily of white migrants from Appalachia.

As a community organizer in the Uptown neighborhood in the 1970s, Coleman organized the International Survival Committee – an auxiliary to the Black Panther Party – along with future Chicago alderwoman Helen Shiller. The committee later became known as the Heart of Uptown Coalition, a political and social service organization focused on needs such as access to affordable housing, medical care, and legal aid.

Walter "Slim" Coleman speaking to CBS 2 on Oct. 25, 1982. CBS 2

Coleman is remembered in particular for his role in Harold Washington's historic and successful campaign to become Chicago's first Black mayor in 1983 – in particular a major voter registration effort.

"I think they never thought we could get together city-wide in any kind of way. So, when we started registering people to vote, they said, 'Well, you'll never get people to register.' Well, when we'd registered a quarter of a million people to vote, then they said, 'Well, you'll never get them to vote.' So then, we in the November [1982] gubernatorial election, when they all voted, then they said, 'Well, you'll never get them to vote for Harold,'" Coleman said in an interview for the "Eyes on the Prize" television series. "It was like, they really just could not believe it. I remember one of the reporters, saying, 'Slim, yesterday you were a nutball, and today you're a civic leader' – based on the fact that 150,000 had gotten registered in a few weeks."

Former U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Illinois) also noted in a statement that Coleman and the Justice Graphics print shop – of which Shiller was president – were behind Washington's memorable campaign button design.

"Harold Washington's election in the city of Chicago was predicated on the blue buttons with the sunburst—that button became the badge of the movement that changed Chicago history. Slim and his cohorts at Justice Graphics created that button, and Slim had it printed at no charge. That blue button became the sign and the symbol of revolutionary change here in Chicago," Rush wrote.  "There would not have been a Harold Washington, there would not have been a Carol Moseley Braun, there would not have been a Barack Obama if not for the singular contribution of Slim Coleman."

Justice Graphics also published the bilingual "All-Chicago City News" newspaper.

Meanwhile, Coleman went on to serve as an adviser for Washington throughout his time as mayor.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Coleman began to split his work between the Uptown and the West Town and Bucktown communities – with a greater focus on the needs of immigrants, his obit said. He also married activist the Rev. Emma Lozano and went on to raise a family.

Coleman – who earned a Master of Divinity from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary – later became pastor of Adalberto United Methodist Church in the Humboldt Park neighborhood. In 2006, the church gained notoriety for providing sanctuary for Elvira Arellano, an undocumented immigrant who herself became well-known as an immigration rights activist.

Coleman and wife Lozano spent many years as the spiritual leaders for Adalberto and for sister church Lincoln United Methodist in Pilsen – with a major focus on ministry for immigrants.

Coleman also worked as an aide to U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois) for 10 years, according to an online biography.

Beginning in 2007, Coleman also served as the director of the Familia Latina Unida Medical Reserve Corps.

"Slim lives on. He will always be in our hearts and his spirit will continue to live in us," Rush wrote. "His life will always be a beacon to those who seek a more just and equitable life, and nation."

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