CIVIL RIGHTS VETERAN
Born Arlington, Virginia, in 1917, her father was George Posea Cooper, and her mother was Esther Irving. Her father had been in the US Army and her mother had come to Washington from Cleveland for an interview as an office secretary. At the interview, the company were stunned to find she was black – but they still employed her, and were impressed by her organisation and efficiency.
Esther Senior eventually became a teacher. She was the President of the Arlington branch of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People). Both Esther Snr. and George, were very active in the local community.
Esther Junior grew up in an era of segregated schools. Her parents had always told her to study hard so that she could choose which university she wanted to go to. In her house, books were more important than furniture. “My parents’ values were passed onto me.”
She got her bachelor’s degree from Obelin College in 1938 and her master’s from Fisk University. Both degrees were in Sociology. Her thesis was ‘The Negro Woman Domestic Worker in Relation to Trade Unionism.’ It was regarded as a ground-breaking study.
That same year, Esther joined the SNYC (Southern Negro Youth Congress). They helped tobacco workers in Virginia to organise a strike (the first since 1905) – demanding an 8-hour working day and a living wage. It was during this campaign that Esther earned a lot of respect…and she met Communist labour organiser James E. Jackson (known to everyone as Jack). They were married in 1941.
In 1942, Esther persuaded Paul Robeson to come and sing for the SNYC at Tuskegee, Alabama. She said, “Hundreds of people came out to fill the auditorium. They were farmers, steel workers, coal miners and others. There was no segregation or fights that night. It was a historic event.”
In the meantime, Jack was drafted into the army for the duration of the Second World War.
Esther was given a Rosenwald Fellowship (awarded for the ‘Well-Being of Mankind’ – other winners include James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and W.E.B. DuBois). The plan was for Esther to do her PhD on the attitude of black youth to the Second World War. However, instead of choosing a life in academia, she changed direction and decided to be active on the ground and get involved in the struggle for civil rights and equality.
After the war, the Jacksons moved to Detroit. They were active in agitation amongst local car workers, who were employed in appalling conditions.
This was during the height of McCarthyism in the USA and as a communist, Jack became a ‘wanted man’ by the American authorities, so he went ‘underground’, leaving Esther to bring up their two children, Harriet and Kathryn.
Around this time, Esther organised the defence for Rosa Lee Ingram, a woman from Georgia who (along with her two sons), had been accused of murdering a white sharecropper who had assaulted her. All three were found guilty in court and were sentenced to death.
Esther did not abandon the Ingram cause. Eventually, with extensive publicity and a subsequent public outcry, the sentences were commuted to life imprisonment.
She just kept going – and in the end, President Harry S. Truman intervened to get the Ingram family released from prison.
Esther became the SNYC delegate to the World Youth Congress, held in London.
She also became Chair of the American subcommittee on ‘Problems of Dependent People’.
Then, Jack came out of hiding and was promptly arrested and put on trial. He was convicted, but this was quashed on appeal before he served any time in prison.
The couple decided to move to Brooklyn, New York. There, they attended civil rights meetings in the home of W.E.B. DuBois. The beautiful house had been given to DuBois by the writer Arthur Miller, who was a great supporter of the civil rights cause.
The next step for Esther was as a member of staff on the Voting Project in Birmingham, Alabama. She intended to stay just one summer, but ended up committing seven years to the project, as one of the leaders of the SNYC. She organised transport strikes, which were later copied by the 1960s Civil Rights movement. She worked tirelessly for the right of black people to vote, registering many of them, and also for equality in employment and housing.
The SNYC were extremely active and laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights movement. “They were a model of what black youth should and ought to do. It preceded us, dared as we dared, dreamed as we dreamed”, said Julian Bond, a leading civil rights activist.
Esther moved back to New York. In 1961 she was a founder of a new magazine, ‘Freedomways’ and became its editor for 25 years. It was a journal of black history, heritage, culture and arts. It was issued quarterly and was extremely influential. Esther said it was “a tool for the liberation of our people”. Contributors included James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Paul Robeson and Derek Walcott, and African leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Julius Nyerere (Tanzania) and Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya) – amongst many others. “She gave old and newer voices a place to be heard.”
“The publication was an important link between the northern and southern movements for civil rights…it enjoyed a national and international readership.”
Esther was delighted when she was contacted by Michael Schwerner in 1964. He was a white Civil Rights activist who had started a library in Meridan, Mississippi, and wanted 10 copies of Freedomways for it.
She responded to his request, but never got to deliver the issues to him, as shortly afterwards, Michael and two other civil rights campaigners, James Cheney and Andrew Goodman were kidnapped and brutally murdered.
Esther gave moral support to Andrew’s mother in person and started regular correspondence with Michael’s father.
Still, Esther continued her activism. She campaigned for the release of Frank Chapman, wrongly convicted of murder in Missouri, who had been sentenced to 50 years in prison. She raised the profile of the case to national level, eventually securing his release. Chapman called her, “a long-distance warrior to freedom.”
Her husband Jack, started appearing on stage with folk musician Pete Seeger. Jack would carry Seeger’s guitar onto the stage, trailing behind the singer. The audience assumed Jack was just a roadie – but he would start the concert by grabbing the microphone and giving an impassioned speech about equality.
In 1968, Esther organised the 100th birthday celebration for W.E.B. DuBois. Martin Luther King attended. Just two months later, King was assassinated in Memphis.
Esther was awarded an ‘Excellence in Journalism and Communication’ award and in 1989 received a ‘New York Association of Black Journalists’ lifetime achievement award.
In 2007, Jack died. Esther said, “We were right for each other.” The couple were regarded as mainstays of the civil rights movement, demanding equality for all.
She decided to move to Massachusetts but made sure she donated all of her and her husband’s papers and writings to the Tamiment Library at New York University.
In 2010 Esther won a ‘Phenomenal Women in Media’ award for her, “lifelong commitment to telling the stories of the African-American experience and connecting young people to their history and legacy.”
In 2015, Sara Rzeszutek Haviland published a biography of the couple entitled, ‘James and Esther Cooper Jackson: Love and Courage in The Black Freedom Movement’. Sara became good friends with Esther.
That same year, Esther moved to a Boston retirement home.
Esther died two days after her 105th birthday.
Upon her death, Sara said, “It is difficult to quantify Esther’s contributions to the black freedom movement. In addition to being an incredibly important activist, she welcomed everyone she met with warmth, generosity and an unforgettable smile. She will be sorely missed.”
Esther was actually interviewed on her 105th birthday. She said, “We devoted ourselves to each other, to our daughters and to the great cause of our times, through thick and thin. It was a life supreme”.
RIP – Radical Inspiring Publication