By Herb Boyd
Esther Cooper Jackson was not profiled in this column last week but the paper did feature her obituary, with scant mention of her devoted husband, James E. Jackson Jr. Together they were a dauntless duo in the fight for freedom and to overcome political and social oppression.
When he died in 2007 a gaggle of daily newspapers gladly noted his passing, giving him the kind of coverage he did not receive when he was alive and an active member of the Communist Party. Unless, of course, they were reporting on his indictment for violating the Smith Act, and teaching classes on revolution and how to overthrow the government.
But that inaccurate accusation and incident in 1951 runs ahead of our story on Jackson and his adventurous life among members committed to the civil and human rights struggle.
He was born in Richmond, Va. on Nov. 29, 1914. His father was a pharmacist and they lived in a section of the city called Jackson Ward, set aside for African Americans. Jackson was 16 in 1931 when he entered Virginia Union University. Three years later he graduated with a degree in chemistry. In 1937, he received a degree in pharmacy from Howard University. It was during his final year at Howard that he joined with others to found the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC). One of the central concerns the organization had was aiding the Black women in their strike against the tobacco companies, who paid them only $5 a week. He was there as a union representing the striking workers gradually gained national recognition.
The labor movement in the South was certainly a key issue in 1959 when Jackson wrote that the task before them “was to undertake, without further delay the job of organizing the unorganized southern workers in both industry and agriculture with particular emphasis on workers in the textile and lumber industries and on the cotton plantations.” This is from an essay that’s included in his book “Revolutionary Tracings in World Politics and Black Liberation.”
Several of the essays in the book chronicle Jackson’s intrepid activism as he roamed from the South to the North and then globally. Even in the late 1930s he was part of a team of researchers assisting Gunnar Myrdal in his monumental study, which was titled “An American Dilemma” in 1944. A few years before while he was working in Nashville at Fisk University he met and they married in 1941.
Ten years later, after serving in the military, in 1951, when the McCarthy witch hunts were fully on the move, he was one of 21 Communist Party members indicted for their revolutionary activism. Most of them were convicted and imprisoned but Jackson and five others fled and went into hiding and did not see his family for more than five years. When at last he surrendered in 1956 he and his comrades were convicted of conspiracy. A year before, as he awaited trial, Jackson charged in a speech in front of the Federal Courthouse: “I believe that my action today, in taking into court and before the bar of public opinion the question of my own indictment under the fascist-like Smith Act law, will have the sympathy and support of all who have a regard for justice and a concern for their own liberty.”
In 1956, the Supreme Court ruled in the Yates decision that the Smith Act required more than the teaching and advocacy of an abstract doctrine that the government should be overthrown “by force or violence.” The appeals court overturned the convictions, which in effect ruled that the government failed to prove defendants had urged people “to do something” rather than “believe in something.”
After this period of turmoil and pressure from the government because of his political beliefs, Jackson resumed his aggressive activism both as a leader in the Communist Party and engagement in the Civil Rights Movement. Both he and his wife were prominent supporters of the Free Angela Davis campaign, assuring their comrade’s fight for freedom.
Jackson was one of the last writers to interview Ho Chi Minh before his death in 1969. “One of his last political acts,” Jackson said of the great Vietnamese leader, “was to address a greeting of the Communist Party of the United States on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. He applauded the struggles of the working class, Black liberation, and peace forces in our country and expressed confidence in the triumph of their sacred cause.” What he said of Ho are fitting words for his own remarkable commitment and an epitaph noting his passage among us.