Dr Sara Rzeszutek offers this memoriam on the life of Arlington-born Virginia communist Esther Cooper Jackson who passed on August 23rd after her 105th birthday
Esther Cooper Jackson, a Black activist whose efforts had a global impact, died on Tuesday, August 23, 2022 at the age of 105. She was born on August 21, 1917 in Arlington, Virginia, and over her long life she shaped numerous social movements, helped others launch their careers, and fostered connections among people of different backgrounds, political ideologies, and countries. She was a committed revolutionary who inspired countless people and generated change
Esther Cooper Jackson grew up in a Black middle-class household, and her upbringing reflected her family’s relatively comfortable economic status. Her parents arranged experiences that would help their three daughters become worldly and experience life beyond segregated Arlington.
The family spent summers at Sea Isle City, New Jersey and regularly visited family in Ohio. Cooper Jackson’s parents prioritized education and sent their girls to live with an uncle in Washington, D. C. so that they could attend the prestigious Dunbar High School.
Her upbringing was not entirely typical, though. In addition to their relative privilege, Cooper Jackson’s mother, Esther Irving Cooper, was an activist with her own professional career, offering a model of female independence that inspired her daughter.
Her mother was an NAACP member who attended protests throughout her life, served as a secretary for Ohio’s first Black elected state representative, worked in various federal government offices, and she also taught for a time at Nannie Helen Burroughs’s National Training School for Women and Girls.
Cooper Jackson left Virginia in 1934 to attend Oberlin College in Ohio. There, she became interested in the Spanish Civil War and knew classmates who lost their lives after joining the Abraham Lincoln Brigades.
This moment piqued her curiosity about global affairs and led her to rethink her political views. While she had been inspired by her mother’s commitment to pacifism, she now believed that fascism was an evil that must be defeated at all costs.
After graduating from Oberlin in 1938, she enrolled at Fisk University, where she pursued a Master’s Degree in sociology. In Nashville, she lived and worked at a Methodist settlement house and was exposed to extreme poverty daily for the first time in her life.
This experience proved transformative for her politics, as did the research for her thesis, “The Negro Woman Domestic Worker in Relation to Trade Unionism.” While at Fisk, she joined the Communist Party, USA. She would remain a member until 1956.
Two other life-changing experiences happened during her time at Fisk. In 1939, she attended a meeting of the Southern Negro Youth Congress in Birmingham, Alabama. She was taken with the organization’s commitment, energy, and goals. She also met James E. Jackson, Jr., a fellow Communist, SNYC leader, and researcher for Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem in Modern Democracy.
Jackson offered her a full-time position organizing for the SNYC after she graduated. She chose activism over the chance to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology, and married James Jackson on May 8, 1941. Cooper Jackson did not take Jackson’s name, in radical defiance of the gendered norms of the time, until 1951.
The SNYC helped Cooper Jackson grow as an activist and launched her onto a global stage. She took on increasing responsibility in the organization and served as its executive secretary from 1942-1946. As in other areas of American life, World War II offered activist groups the opportunity to hone female leadership.
In this time, Cooper Jackson drove the organization’s gender politics, shaping it into a forerunner and model for Black women’s activism in the Black freedom movement. Her leadership included running Right to Vote campaigns, investigating the sexual assaults of Black women, and fighting segregation in public spaces, putting herself in harm’s way on multiple occasions.
Cooper Jackson’s time leading the SNYC expanded her network in a way that would shape her approach to Black freedom for the remainder of her long career. The organization was well-connected in Black America, and its Adult Advisory Board included college presidents, political figures, activists, and thought leaders.
She met Paul Robeson, a personal hero, and worked with the SNYC to organize his first concert in the South. He had previously refused to perform in the region because venues mandated segregation. The SNYC was able to guarantee an integrated audience.
In 1945, she met W. E. B. Du Bois while representing the SNYC at the World Youth Conference in London. They would become friends and collaborators in later years. Though she had a toddler at home and her husband was serving in the China-Burma-India theater of World War II, Cooper Jackson could not pass on the opportunity to meet and work with young activists from around the globe.
She forged an SNYC alliance with the World Federation of Democratic Youth (WFDY), which grew out of the conference. The Soviet Anti-Fascist Youth Committee invited her to join an all-female WFDY delegation to travel through war-torn Europe. The group spent time working as assistant bricklayers in devastated Stalingrad.
When she returned home, Cooper Jackson drew an analysis that informed the SNYC’s work going forward, helping the group to focus on connections between Black youth in the South and youth struggles for democracy around the globe. After a speech discussing her experiences at the SNYC’s conference in 1946, her friend and fellow leader Dorothy Burnham explained that the audience, “began to understand that we were not fighting this battle for freedom alone.
And we gained courage and fortitude to continue our struggle…we know [Esther] had made friends for the youth of the South far across the world.” Cooper Jackson, with her husband, went on a tour of the South after the war to speak about their experiences. She presented on Youth Movements in Colonial Countries,” “Youth’s Plan for World Security,” and “The World Student Movement.”
Cooper Jackson centered a global perspective in her activism, but the McCarthy years forced a more local focus. In 1951, James E. Jackson was indicted under the 1940 Smith Act, and disappeared into the Communist Party, USA’s underground. He remained out of reach for nearly five years. During that time, Cooper Jackson fought for the liberation of Smith Act victims.
She joined the National Committee to Defend Negro Leadership and argued that depriving Black radicals of their political and civil liberties was an assault on the entire Black freedom movement. She also focused on the protection of her family.
She and her young daughters were constant victims of FBI surveillance and harassment. In response, she worked with the Families Committee of Smith Act Victims to fight back and provide families with material and emotional support when the FBI’s activities cost them jobs, the ability to attend pre-school and summer camp as a result of federal intimidation, and peace of mind.
When the anticommunist hysteria subsided, Cooper Jackson worked with Shirley Graham Du Bois, W. E. B. Du Bois, and others to establish Freedomways magazine. Freedomways was a quarterly journal of the Black freedom movement that ran from 1961-1985, and Cooper Jackson served as managing editor for its duration.
Historians Michael Nash and Daniel Leab have written that Cooper Jackson shaped the journal’s “intellectual direction and was the energy behind it.” Freedomways offered articles, art, and literature on many aspects of the Black freedom movement, including civil rights, Black power, Black arts, Black nationalism, and global freedom movements.
The journal mirrored Cooper Jackson’s view that activists across the country benefitted from international solidarity, and that multiple viewpoints could be presented side-by-side for readers to parse.
Global leaders like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Cheddi Jagan of Guyana, and Jawaharlal Nehru of India contributed work to Freedomways, offering political commentary on socialism, capitalism, and democracy in the decolonizing world, the U.S.-Soviet conflict, and the independence movements in their nations.
International poets, writers, and youth activists provided work that ran alongside essays on U.S. civil rights and racial politics. The journal helped to launch the careers of Black writers like Alice Walker, Nikki Giovanni, and Audre Lorde and highlighted other prominent figures like James Baldwin, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, and Gwendolyn Brooks, ensuring that African American cultural expression would also be elevated among its international audience.
Throughout her long life, Cooper Jackson used the privilege of her Arlington, Virginia upbringing to dedicate herself to fighting for social justice and raising up voices who might otherwise be silenced.
By turning to activism, she was able to experience and then share a global network with young activists within the U.S., speak out for change in a way that reached international audiences, and foster a critique of U.S. racial politics that centralized connections between local and global freedom movements.
She rarely took the limelight, but Esther Cooper Jackson’s impressive lifetime of activism created space for countless freedom fighters to fight for change while she made a difference in her own right.