Civil rights

Esther Cooper Jackson, first civil rights activist, dies at 105

Esther Cooper Jackson, a civil rights activist, feminist and former Communist Party member who was considered late in her life as a former stateswoman of the American left, died August 23 at a nursing facility in Boston. . She was 105 years old.

His family confirmed his death but did not cite a cause.

Ms Jackson spent decades at the forefront of the racial justice movement – ​​and decades more as a repository of knowledge about the social, political and intellectual movements that helped shape the United States in the 20th century .

“Esther Cooper Jackson’s activism in the black freedom movement spans [70 years]and her contributions are nearly impossible to quantify,” Sara Rzeszutek, a history professor at St. Francis College in Brooklyn and author of a book on Ms. Jackson’s activism, wrote in an email.

“During this period, she adapted her approach to changing times and different phases of her life, whether she was a popular leader in the South, a civil libertarian in the fight against McCarthyism or an editor to provide a platform for promising cultural contributors,” Rzeszutek continued. “While her activism has adapted and evolved, she has remained consistent in her commitment to building broad coalitions between leaders and leftist and radical groups, mainstream civil rights activists and ordinary people who would benefit from his efforts.”

Raised in a middle-class black family in Arlington, Virginia, Ms. Jackson began her career as a civil rights activist in the 1940s, when she traveled to Alabama as a volunteer with the Southern Negro Youth Congress. She helped organize voter registration drives and became executive secretary of the organization, which was notable for including women in leadership positions. The civil rights group’s work foreshadowed that of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s.

Ms. Jackson’s husband, James E. Jackson Jr., had been among the founders of the SNYC in 1937. Both joined the Communist Party in the 1930s and saw their lives turned upside down by anti-Communist fervor in the years that followed. the Second World War.

James Jackson became a party official and spent years on the run after being charged with other party members in 1951 under the Smith Act of 1940, which prohibited the defense of violent overthrow of the government. He was convicted in 1956, but was spared jail time after the US Supreme Court essentially gutted the Smith Act in a decision in 1957.

“We tried to pick up where we left off,” Ms Jackson said in a meeting with Richmond magazine years later.

In 1961, working alongside black scholar and author WEB Du Bois, Ms. Jackson helped found Freedomways, a quarterly journal that for a quarter of a century served as a showcase for black intellectuals. She became editor and a guiding force in the periodical which published the works of writers such as Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Derek Walcott, Nikki Giovanni and Alice Walker.

“As editor-in-chief of Freedomways magazine, she gave liberation struggles and movements across Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America and the United States a beacon. She gave voices old and new a place to write and be heard,” said Maurice Jackson, professor of history and African-American studies at Georgetown University after his death in a meeting with People’s World, a publication whose roots go back to the Daily Worker.

Esther Victoria Cooper was born in Arlington on August 21, 1917. Her father was an army lieutenant and her mother, a U.S. Forest Service employee, was president of the local chapter of the NAACP. Ms Jackson grew up in relative comfort in a home where learning was valued above all else, once reminder that her parents spent their money on a set of Harvard Classics rather than expensive furniture.

After graduating from Dunbar High School in Washington, Ms. Jackson enrolled at Oberlin College in Ohio, where she received a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1938. Two years later, she earned a master’s degree. , also in sociology, from Fisk University, a black institution in Nashville. Her thesis, “The Black Domestic Worker in Relation to Unionism,” marked the beginning of her interest in community organizing.

She and her husband were married in 1941. Following her work with the Southern Negro Youth Congress, Ms. Jackson was active in organizations such as the Progressive Party, Civil Rights Congress, National Committee for Leadership Defense black and the families of victims of the Smith Act. . She has spent most of her professional life in New York.

She and her husband, who died in 2007, have been the subject of studies, including Rzeszutek’s book “James and Esther Cooper Jackson: Love and Courage in the Black Freedom Movement” (2015).

Survivors include their two daughters, Harriet Jackson Scarupa of Silver Spring, Md., and Kathryn Jackson of Cambridge, Mass.; a grandson; and two great-grandsons.

Reflecting on Ms Jackson’s life, David Levering Lewis, professor emeritus at New York University and Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Du Bois, said in an interview that she represented “a commitment to change, which was not not dogmatic, who was not paralyzed”. by any type of ideology, but rather… simply channeled the great vitality of the secular left.

“We’ve made a lot of progress, but there are still a lot of problems,” Ms Jackson said. said in 2016. “As it seems then, the struggle continues. Since the beginning of this country, black people have been fighting for their rights. And it continues; it’s different, but it continues.