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Guide to the James E. Jackson and Esther Cooper Jackson Photographs Collection PHOTOS.221

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
70 Washington Square South
10th Floor
New York, NY 10012
(212) 998-2630

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

Collection processed by Aniko Szucs and Erika Gottfried, 2006-2007

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on September 20, 2018
Description is in English. using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Historical/Biographical Note

James E. Jackson (1914-2007) and Esther Cooper Jackson (1917- ), African-American communists and civil rights activists, are best 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. James Jackson graduated from Virginia Union University in 1934, and at Howard University (the alma mater of his parents) graduated from the College of Pharmacy in 1937. After attending Dunbar High School in Washington D.C., Esther Cooper graduated from Oberlin College in 1938, and completed her master's degree at Fisk University in 1940, writing as her thesis "Negro Women Domestic Workers in Relation to Trade Unionism." James Jackson joined the Communist Party in 1931, and Esther Cooper joined in 1939. The couple met in 1939 (they married in 1941) when James 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, held its first annual conference, organized by James Jackson and Ed Strong, in Richmond, in February 1937. Under its slogan "Freedom, Equality, Opportunity," the SNYC campaigned for the full range civil, economic, political, and social rights for African Americans. Activities and issues included, 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 regulations barring discrimination in war industries. The Jacksons played leading roles throughout the SNYC's first decade, Esther Jackson as Executive Secretary, and James Jackson as Special Projects Director, respectively. In 1939 the SNYC moved its headquarters to Birmingham, Alabama.

James Jackson entered the army in 1943 and served in the Burma theatre. In autumn 1945, Esther Jackson attended the World Youth Congress in London, where she met W. E. B. Du Bois, which marked the start of a close association the Jacksons and Du Bois. In 1946 James Jackson became State Chairman of the Communist Party of Louisiana. In 1947 the Jacksons moved to Detroit, where James Jackson began work as a Party organizer among the automobile workers, while Esther 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 Jackson was named Southern Director of the Communist Party. In June 1951, he was indicted under the Smith Act (charged with advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government) and went underground to avoid arrest. Emerging almost five years later, Jackson was sentenced to prison, but he did not serve time, as the Smith Act was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court shortly after.

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, in 1961 Esther Jackson helped found the influential African American political and cultural quarterly, Freedomways, and served as its editor throughout its years of publication, from 1961 to 1986. James Jackson retired in 1991, in the aftermath of the 1991 split in the CPUSA.