The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Esther Cooper Jackson, early activist for civil rights, dies at 105

Esther Cooper Jackson at the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University's Hutchins Center in 2011. (Elise Amendola/AP)
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Esther Cooper Jackson, a civil rights activist, feminist and onetime member of the Communist Party who was regarded by the end of her life as an elder stateswoman of the American left, died Aug. 23 at a nursing facility in Boston. She was 105.

Her family confirmed her death but did not cite a cause.

Ms. Jackson spent decades on the forefront of the movement for racial justice — 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 over [70 years], and her contributions are nearly impossible to quantify,” Sara Rzeszutek, a professor of history at St. Francis College in Brooklyn and the author of a book about Ms. Jackson’s activism, said in an email.

“Over that time, she adapted her approach to the changing times and to fit the different phases of her life, whether she was a grass-roots leader in the South, an advocate for civil liberties in the fight against McCarthyism, or as an editor providing a platform for up-and-coming cultural contributors,” Rzeszutek continued. “While her activism adapted and evolved, she remained consistent in her commitment to building broad coalitions among leftist and radical leaders and groups, mainstream civil rights workers, and the ordinary people who would benefit from her efforts.”

Raised in a middle-class Black family in Arlington, Va., Ms. Jackson began her career as a civil rights activist in the 1940s, when she went 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 group’s civil rights work presaged that of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s.

Ms. Jackson’s husband, James E. Jackson Jr., had been among the founders of SNYC in 1937. Both joined the Communist Party in the 1930s and saw their lives upended by anti-communist fervor in the years after World War II.

James Jackson became a party official and spent years as a fugitive after being charged along with other party members in 1951 under the Smith Act of 1940, which outlawed the advocacy of the violent overthrow of the government. He was convicted in 1956 but was spared prison time after the U.S. Supreme Court essentially gutted the Smith Act in a ruling in 1957.

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

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

“As editor of Freedomways magazine, she gave the liberation struggles and movements across Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, and the United States a beacon light. She gave old and newer voices a place to write and be heard,” Maurice Jackson, a professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University, said after her death in an interview with People’s World, a publication that traces its roots to the Daily Worker.

Esther Victoria Cooper was born in Arlington on Aug. 21, 1917. Her father was an Army lieutenant, and her mother, an employee of the U.S. Forest Service, was president of the local NAACP chapter. Ms. Jackson grew up in relative comfort in a home where learning was valued above all else, once recalling that her parents spent their money on a set of Harvard Classics rather than on 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 received a master’s degree, also in sociology, from Fisk University, a historically Black institution in Nashville. Her thesis, “The Negro Woman Domestic Worker in Relation to Trade Unionism,” marked the beginning of her interest in community organizing.

She and her husband were married in 1941. After her work with the Southern Negro Youth Congress, Ms. Jackson was active with organizations including the Progressive Party, the Civil Rights Congress, the National Committee to Defend Negro Leadership and the Families of Smith Act Victims. She spent most of her professional life in New York City.

She and her husband, who died in 2007, were the subjects 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, a 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 dogmatic, which was not hamstrung by any kind of ideology, but rather … simply channeled the great vitality of the secular left.”

“We’ve made many gains, but there are still many problems,” Ms. Jackson said in 2016. “As we would say then, the struggle continues. From the beginning of this country, Blacks have been fighting for their rights. And that continues; it’s different, but it continues.”