Jodi Dean & Charisse Burden-Stelly
Esther Cooper Jackson passed away on August 23, 2022, shortly after her 105th birthday. The definition of a long-distance revolutionary, Cooper Jackson shared in a 1988 interview with Robin D. G. Kelley that she was “not one of those people who does things lightly.” She was laughingly recounting how she ended up joining the Communist Party while studying for her master’s degree at Fisk University, where she wrote her path-breaking master’s thesis, “The Negro Woman Domestic Worker in Relation to Trade Unionism.” The thesis includes a comprehensive history of domestic labor in the United States as well as detailed studies of unionization efforts in different cities. While many claim that the isolation of domestic workers in private homes makes organizing them impossible, Cooper points out that the same charge has been leveled at a variety of different occupations and yet they have been organized sufficiently to improve their working conditions. Even more, what holds in the US has not been the case in other countries where domestic workers have been able to bargain for better wages and conditions. As someone who does not do things lightly, Cooper understood that just because this form of organizing wasn’t easy, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t possible.
That Cooper had written such a powerful thesis and joined the CPUSA attests to her political evolution. While she was an undergraduate at Oberlin in 1934-38, her professors had tried to pull her away from the committed pacifism that characterized her politics. However, she had already been studying Marxist ideas, had been impressed with Anna Louise Strong’s vivid depictions of the effort to build socialism in the Soviet Union, and had followed closely the developments in the Spanish Civil War. NeverthelessHowever, she continued to argue until she was fully convinced of the merits of Marxism, socialism, and membership in the CPUSA.
An early advocate of women retaining their names after marrying, Cooper took her husband James E. Jackson’s name, who she married in 1941, out of solidarity after he was indicted under the Smith Act and was forced underground. Because they were committed radicals and he was a CPUSA leader, Jackson and their entire family were long-term victims of FBI harassment. Starting in the late 1930s, the two organized for the Southern Negro Young Congress (SNYC) in Birmingham, Alabama. In taking this position, Cooper gave up a PhD fellowship at the University of Chicago. She wanted to give as much time as she could to the revolutionary movement. Describing the work of the SNYC in the segregated, Klan-ridden, Jim Crow South, Cooper acknowledges the smallness of their victories in the grueling struggle. She says that this didn’t dampen their enthusiasm: “The energy that was poured into the cause of building the fighting unity and leading in the people’s struggle came from the people themselves.”
Ever the internationalist and anti-imperialist, in her SNYC anti-fascist speeches during World War II, Cooper linked the struggle against police brutality, the poll tax, and segregation in the military to the fight against the Germany, Italy, and Japan: “Integrate Negroes to disintegrate the axis.” Building on this on and the relationships forged in the SNYC, Cooper co-founded, with Louis Burnham and others, the Black literary and political magazine Freedomways in 1961. Publishing Nobel Prize-winning poets, African and Caribbean political leaders, and critical social and cultural analysis, the magazine was a central theoretical instrument of the Black Freedom movement and of the struggle for African liberation throughout the diaspora. Indeed, a primary goal was strengthening relations among people of African descent around the world and, in contrast to the publications dominant in the United States, to “furnish accurate information on the liberation movements in Africa itself.”
Cooper herself poured her boundless energy into the struggle. She was, after all, not one of those people who do things lightly. In her later years, she gave numerous interviews and oral histories that help to document the long and tireless struggles to achieve Black liberation and socialism—struggles for which she remained grateful. “I am proud–no, thankful–to be part of a generation of young people who took a stand so boldly, to fight for their civil rights in this country,” she said. “We were out in front, we were courageous.”