Jackson, Esther Cooper, 1917-2022

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Esther Cooper Jackson (born August 21, 1917 in Arlington, Virginia - died August 23, 2022) was an African-American civil rights activist, former social worker and, along with Shirley Graham Du Bois, W. E. B. Du Bois, Edward Strong, and Louis E. Burnham, was one of the founding editors of the magazine Freedomways, a theoretical, political and literary journal published from 1961 to 1985. She was married to James E. Jackson (1914–2007), an influential labor activist. The couple also known for their role in founding and leading the Southern Negro Youth Congress (1937-1948). Both were raised in middle-class families with histories of civil rights activism. Raised in Arlington, Virginia, Esther Cooper's father was a lieutenant in the U.S. army, and her mother worked in the U.S. Forestry Service during World War I and later became actively involved in the Arlington, Virginia chapter of the NAACP and in local school desegregation campaigns. After attending Dunbar High School in Washington D.C., Esther Cooper graduated from Oberlin College in 1938, then completed her master's degree at Fisk University in 1940, writing as her thesis Negro Women Domestic Workers in Relation to Trade Unionism. Esther Cooper joined the Communist Party in 1939. Esther Cooper met James E. Jackson in 1939 (they married in 1941) when Jackson was staying at Fisk while working for Ralph Bunche as an investigator for what would become Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944).

The Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC), a communist-led popular front organization, conceived at the first National Negro Congress in 1936, held its first annual conference, organized by James Jackson and Ed Strong, in Richmond, in February, 1937. Jackson and Cooper played leading roles throughout the SNYC's first decade, as indicated by its letterhead from 1946, where Cooper is the Executive Secretary, Jackson the Special Projects Director, and their fellow-communists and close friends Louis and Dorothy Burnham were, respectively, Organizational Secretary and Educational Director. In 1939 the SNYC moved is headquarters to Birmingham, Alabama, with its large concentration of African American industrial workers. Under is slogan "Freedom, Equality, Opportunity," the SNYC campaigned for the full range civil, economic, political, and social rights for African Americans. Activities and issues included, in addition to supporting labor organizing (including domestic workers), campaigns against lynching, police brutality and the poll tax, for the right to vote and an end to segregation, for an end to employment discrimination (sometimes via consumer boycotts), and during World War II, for enforcement of the U.S. Fair Employment Practices Committee's resolution 8802 barring discrimination in war industries. The SNYC also published the periodical Cavalcade: The March of Southern Youth, and supported educational and cultural activities, including "People's Theaters." The SNYC held its last conference in 1948, and the pressure of Cold War anti-communism led to its subsequent dissolution. However, SNYC members went on to play important roles in the civil rights movement of the 19650s-60s, including E.D. Nixon, and several became elected officials.

Jackson entered the U.S. Army in 1943 and served in the Burma theatre for some eighteen months, attainting the rank of sergeant, and during which time he and Esther corresponded daily. In the fall of 1945, Esther attended the World Youth Congress in London, where she met W.E.B. Du Bois, beginning a close association with the Jacksons culminating in his decision to join the Communist Party in 1961. In 1946 Jackson became State Chairman of the Communist Party of Louisiana. In 1947 the Jacksons moved to Detroit, where they shared a house with future Detroit mayor Coleman Young, and where James Jackson began work as a Party organizer among the autoworkers, while Esther Cooper Jackson was active in the local branches of the Progressive Party and of the Civil Rights Congress, another popular front organization. In 1951 the Jacksons moved to New York and James was named Southern Director of the Communist Party. Later that year he was indicted under the Smith Act (charged with advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government) and went underground to avoid arrest, while Esther Cooper Jackson worked for the National Committee to Defend Negro Leadership and the Families of Smith Act Victims. Emerging five years later, Jackson was sentenced to prison, although he did not serve time as the Smith Act was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Thereafter, James Jackson served as a full-time Party official, including as a member of its leading Political Bureau, and as Education Director and as International Affairs Secretary, in which capacity he traveled throughout the Communist countries and elsewhere. Meanwhile, Esther Cooper Jackson helped found in 1961 the influential African American political and cultural quarterly, Freedomways, and served as its editor throughout its publication, from 1961 to 1986. James Jackson retired in 1991, in the aftermath of the 1991 split in the CPUSA.


Jackson, Esther Cooper. This Is My Husband: Fighter for His People, Political Refugee. (New York: National Committee to Defend Negro Leadership, 1953). Kelley, Robin D.G. 'Southern Negro Youth Congress.' In Encyclopedia of the American Left, pp. 737-9. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992).

From the guide to the James E. Jackson and Esther Cooper Jackson Papers, Bulk, 1937-1992, 1917-2008, (Tamiment Library / Wagner Archives)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Guide to the James E. Jackson and Esther Cooper Jackson Photographs Collection, 1910-1995 Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
creatorOf Guide to the James E. Jackson and Esther Cooper Jackson Papers, 1917-2018 Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
referencedIn Guide to the Southern Negro Youth Congress FBI Files, 1940-1981, undated Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
referencedIn Guide to the James E. Jackson Audiotapes Collection, 1960s-1980s Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
referencedIn Guide to the Robin Kelley Hammer and Hoe Oral History Collection, 1986-1989 Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
referencedIn Guide to the Abbott Simon Papers, 1932-2002 Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Bloice, Carl person
associatedWith Brown, Lloyd L. (Lloyd Louis), 1913- person
associatedWith Burnham, Dorothy. person
associatedWith Burnham, Louis E. person
associatedWith Civil Rights Congress (U.S.). corporateBody
associatedWith Communist Party of the United States of America. corporateBody
associatedWith Davis, Angela Y. (Angela Yvonne), 1944- person
associatedWith Davis, Benjamin J. (Benjamin Jefferson), 1903-1964 person
associatedWith Davis, Ossie person
associatedWith Dee, Ruby person
associatedWith Dennis, Eugene, 1905-1961 person
associatedWith Dennis, Peggy person
associatedWith Duberman, Martin B. person
associatedWith Du Bois, Shirley Graham, 1896-1977 person
associatedWith Du Bois, W. E. B. (William Edward Burghardt), 1868-1963 person
associatedWith Durr, Virginia Foster person
associatedWith Foster, William Z., 1881-1961 person
associatedWith Freedomways Associates. corporateBody
associatedWith Gerson, Simon W. person
associatedWith Hall, Gus person
associatedWith Harrington, Oliver W. (Oliver Wendell), 1912-1995 person
associatedWith Hudson, Hosea. person
associatedWith Hunton, Alphaeus, 1903-1970 person
associatedWith Jackson, James E., 1914-2007. person
associatedWith Kelley, Robin D. G. person
associatedWith National Committee to Defend Negro Leadership. corporateBody
associatedWith National Negro Congress (U.S.). corporateBody
associatedWith Neruda, Pablo, 1904-1973 person
associatedWith Pittman, John. person
associatedWith Seeger, Pete, 1919- person
associatedWith Simon, Abbott. person
associatedWith Simon, Abbott, 1916- person
associatedWith Southern Negro Youth Congress. corporateBody
associatedWith Strong, Edward E., 1914-1957 person
associatedWith United States. Federal Bureau of Investigation. corporateBody
associatedWith United Tobacco Stemmers and Laborers Union. Local 279. corporateBody
associatedWith Walker, Alice, 1944- person
associatedWith Washington, Mary Helen person
associatedWith West, Jim person
associatedWith Williams, Robert F. (Robert Franklin), 1925-1996 person
associatedWith Winston, Henry, 1911-1986 person
associatedWith Winter, Carl. person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Birmingham AL US
New York City NY US
Brooklyn NY US
Arlington VA US
African American communists
African Americans
African American soldiers
African American youth
Communist trials
World War, 1939-1945
African American newspaper editors
Civil rights activists
Magazine Editor
Social workers


Birth 1917-08-21

Death 2022-08-23





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