Esther Cooper Jackson (Photo by Samantha Willis)
Though the air hovers at 59 degrees, my Uber driver claims it feels like summer as he whisks me to meet Esther Cooper Jackson. We're in Jamaica Plain, a leafy suburb just across the Charles River from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Autumn is in its infancy here, the trees just starting to dapple themselves in gold and rusty orange. I’m a bit nervous; it’s not every day one meets a woman whose work changed the course of American civil rights history.
Inside her room at an assisted-living community, Jackson greets me warmly, clasping my hands with a smile. She’s a small, witty woman with a grandmotherly charm and dark eyes brimming with intensity. She says to me just what I was going to say to her: "I'm so honored to meet you!”
Gesturing for her daughter, Kathy, to move a hefty pile of books and papers from the bed, she says to me, “Sit, sit, we’ve got a lot to talk about.” As I set up my recorder, she points out her many honorary plaques and awards displayed around her room, but beams at a laminated child’s drawing posted on the wall. “My great-grandson did that for a school assignment,” she explains. “He said his hero was his great, great-grandfather, my husband’s father, because he was one of the first black pharmacists in Richmond. He even drew a mortar and pestle, see?”
Come August — "if I make it" — Jackson will become a centenarian. “You know,” she says, “it’s pretty hard even for me to imagine.” Her body may be aged, but her mind is razor-sharp on this sun-drenched morning in the first days of November.
In her near-century of life, she has been a writer, editor, activist and tireless freedom fighter. In 1941, she married James E. Jackson Jr., who was born and raised in Jackson Ward. The two spent a lifetime advocating for civil, human and workers’ rights, united by one belief: equality for all. Though her husband has been gone for nearly 10 years, Jackson now pulls from her deep well of earned wisdom, a living legend of the civil rights era sharing her stories and their valuable lessons with all who have a mind to listen and learn. Over the course of two and a half hours, she shares how her parents inspired her lifelong passion for activism, why she and James were “right for each other,” the origins of her groundbreaking publication, “Freedomways,” and the parallels between the America of her youth and America today.
Richmond magazine: What was your childhood like? What were your parents like, and how did they influence you?
Esther Cooper Jackson: I grew up in Arlington, Virginia. My dad had been in the army, and he met my mother in Washington, D.C., where she was working in an office. She’d taken a civil service exam in Cleveland, her hometown. She was assigned to an office in D.C., and when she got there, they didn’t know she was going to be a black woman, but she started and she excelled.
She met my dad when he was a solider stationed in Fort Myer. They married and moved into a small house in Arlington, in an area where no black people had moved into yet. They lived there all of their married life, until they died. That was the house I grew up in, and I went to elementary school in Arlington.
My mother had been the president of the NAACP in Arlington all of my childhood. They didn’t like the schools; the segregated schools there were not good at all, so my parents began advocating for better schools. Meanwhile, my sister and I enrolled in school in Washington, D.C., so we could get a better education. My two sisters and I went to the famous [Paul Laurence] Dunbar High School in D.C. We had absolutely fabulous black teachers, who were brilliant, but couldn’t get jobs in their fields because they were black. … That’s where I got my first education, at Dunbar.
I think the influence of my parents, particularly my mother, was something that was important to me all of my life. It was why I chose Oberlin College in Ohio, which had a history going back to slavery, taking in runaway slaves; the townspeople, college students and slaves linked arms so the slaves couldn’t be forced back to their masters. My aunt Josephine also went to Oberlin. … So my family influence taught me that one must be involved in civil rights, that we cannot accept racism. This was just a part of my life, especially because of my mother, who was an activist all of her life.
RM: Your first major role in civil rights activism was as a founding member of the Southern Negro Youth Congress. What is the SNYC’s lasting legacy?
ECJ: There was a meeting of black civil rights leaders and activists in Chicago in 1936; it was the National Negro Congress. They felt that nothing was being done about the terrible conditions that black people were living in during the Depression. James, my future husband, met with them in Chicago. The next year, a new organization, the Southern Negro Youth Congress, was founded and led primarily by young people, college students. James was one of them; so was I. The young people really took the organization’s mission further than ever before. … [The SNYC] had its first meeting in Richmond in 1937. One of its first activities was helping lead strikes of tobacco workers in Richmond factories. These efforts were mostly led by black women; they had to take their children to work, and they had no coats, they were desperately poor. They had to use the tobacco bags as coats, some of them. So James and Edward [Strong] and others met with the strikers, and it was the first tobacco strike, and it was the first victory of the SNYC, there in Richmond. The SNYC was headquartered in Richmond for a few years, and then it moved to Birmingham, Alabama, where black steel mill workers were suffering terribly.
Jackson holds a flyer from a Southern Negro Youth Congress event. (Photo by Samantha Willis)
And something else that sets the SNYC apart was that it wasn’t a civil rights group dominated by male leadership, like later movements. The women took leadership roles, because we believed that women were just as fierce leaders as men; women had the same rights as men. Augusta Jackson, Dorothy Burnham, myself and many others. We were very independent; many of us, even after we got married, kept our maiden names, as sort of a lesson to the men and everyone else, that we were individuals. So there was a little bit of feminism mixed in, even way back then at the start.
RM: You worked alongside your future husband, James, in the SNYC. Tell me about how you first met him.
ECJ: We met while he was studying at Fisk; I was obtaining my graduate degree, in 1939, I think it was. He was a serious man, but we had a similar outlook, we saw that right away. Our work with the SNYC brought us closer, and we got married in 1941. We were right for each other.
RM: Did you call your husband James, Jim or Jack?
ECJ: You know, that’s an interesting question, because he had so many names! [laughs] To the New York people, he was Jim. But in the south, his family and our friends in Alabama and other places, we all called him Jack.
RM: What was your impression of Richmond, your husband’s hometown, when you first came? When was that?
ECJ: I had visited Richmond before I met my husband, with my mother. This was back in the 1920s. She was always taking delegations to Richmond to complain about the terrible books and education that black children were getting. When I came to Richmond, I could see that it was, potentially, a very beautiful city. But I could see that the African-Americans living there had little to no rights. But they were bold. They had launched a street car demonstration and strike, where they refused to ride the segregated streetcars. They walked instead. This shows how many [of Richmond’s black citizens] were, very early, finding ways to fight back against the horrible racism in Virginia, and particularly in Richmond.
RM: James’ work took him all over the world, and the two of you eventually settled in New York. Did James ever want to return to Richmond and live there again?
ECJ: From the start, Jack wanted to learn more about the world, but his dad wanted him to come and take over the drugstore. [James Sr.] had also graduated from Howard, in pharmacy. After discussing that with his family, he said, “Maybe later,” and joined up with the Southern Negro Youth Congress, who were trying to tackle, hard as they could, all the problems blacks in the south were facing. He just kept going from there.
RM: When James was gone [he was indicted under the Smith Act for teaching principles of communism during the McCarthy era, and became a fugitive to avoid arrest], how did you hold up as a wife and mother, and still persevere in your own work? What was that period like for you?
ECJ: It was hard, but believe it or not, I made a ton of friends. There were many folks who were active in civil rights and trade unions, who sent my daughters [Harriet and Kathryn] gifts on their birthdays, and offered to pay for their summer camps. They supported me. My mother, who was often visited by FBI agents, supported us, as well as Jack’s parents. So much support. And then, when the Supreme Court decided that [the Smith Act] was illegal, James came home. We tried to pick up right where we left off.
RM: "Freedomways" was founded in spring 1961. Take me back to your life at that time. What was going on?
ECJ: One of the main inspirations for “Freedomways” was Dr. W.E.B. DuBois. He had founded “Crisis” magazine, a magazine for children and other publications. At that time, he lived in Brooklyn Heights, at 31 Grace Court – there’s a plaque on the house now. And several writers – John Oliver Killens, Julian Mayfield, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and others – we all kept gathering at Dr. DuBois’ house. Now, his first wife had died, and he’d married a wonderful activist named Shirley Graham. She also went to Oberlin, and graduated a couple of years before I did. The house they moved into was Arthur Miller’s house; he offered it to them, because he was an admirer of Dr. DuBois. So that’s where we met to discuss founding a new political and cultural magazine, which became “Freedomways.”
RM: "Freedomways" published the first black person to win a Pulitzer prize, poet Gwendolyn Brooks, among several other notable writers. Speak to the role “Freedomways” played in establishing the careers of black intellectual writers.
ECJ: Alice Walker, her first short story and poetry were published in “Freedomways.” When she finally got a contract with a publisher for her poetry, we had to give our permission for them to share it. Nikki Giovanni, we knew she had a powerful voice right away, so of course we published her. James Baldwin was a dear friend of mine, and for a few years, was an editor of “Freedomways.” … There were very few spaces for these types of serious black writers to publish their work; “Freedomways” acted as a bridge for them, and introduced their work to a wider audience.
RM: What was Dr. DuBois like? What did you cherish most about your relationship with him?
ECJ: He was a great man, a scholar and a leader. He was an inspiration to me and so many young people at that time; he paved the way for the work we did, and guided us in our work. … We held a sold-out, huge celebration for Dr. DuBois’ 100th birthday at Carnegie Hall in New York, February 23, 1968. Ossie Davis was there; James Baldwin flew in from France to speak. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave the big speech of the evening, and we all had a grand time honoring Dr. DuBois’ work. The sad part is, Dr. King left our celebration and went to Memphis; he was assassinated there [in April 1968]. So, his speech at our celebration was one of the last that he ever gave.
RM: What's your favorite essay published in "Freedomways"? I love Langston Hughes' 1961 piece wherein he reimagines his first days in Harlem.
ECJ: There are so many, it’s hard to say! [laughs] Sterling Brown, the poet – I loved his work and kept in touch with him until he died. John Oliver Killens – oh, and Langston Hughes, too. We gave a special issue devoted to Langston when he passed away.
RM: You and the founders of "Freedomways" wrote this in your spring 1961 debut issue:
“Now, we come to a national crossroad. Which way will we go? All who are deeply concerned know that this is a time for much serious thought, for careful balancing of ways and means. There is need for much discussion on every level.”
I feel that you could have written that last week. How does America today mirror America then?
ECJ: Wow, I had forgotten about that! It’s almost ancient history now! [laughs] Shirley [Graham DuBois] and I wrote that together. Unfortunately, it is still relevant. We’ve made many gains, but there are still many problems. 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. For instance, education. So many black people, and white people, too, can’t afford college, which you need to get a good job now, and so you have this depressing cycle. This election, with Trump [exhales deeply]. He’s a racist, sexist and so many other things, and we’re considering him for president…seriously?! [Editor’s note: this interview was conducted prior to the election’s outcome.] It’s hard to believe; it’s like we’re moving backwards.
RM: Speaking of moving backwards, we’ve had an incident recently in Richmond, where someone dressed in blackface, in public, which caused a great uproar –
ECJ: I’m sure it did! Wait a minute, how did he explain that? Why did he do that?
RM: He says he was making a tongue-in-cheek commentary on America’s racial divide, that in our country, by embodying racism, he was trying to show how ugly and prevalent it is.
ECJ: [Stares quizzically] Well, I think that’s a terrible way to make a point. I understand the intent, but horrible delivery.
RM: As someone who spent their life speaking up for the rights and dignity of black people, what does it say about America and our progress that we’re still seeing racist stereotypes likes blackface perpetuated?
ECJ: It says that unfortunately, in spite of everything, there is still a lot of racism in this country. We still have to be alert; we have to struggle in every city. Still, at this late date, many opportunities are denied to blacks and other minorities. There’s much work to do.
RM: You’re 99 now, and spent all of your adult life fighting for civil rights. When you look back at your life’s work, what are you most proud of?
ECJ: Well, first, I must say that I didn’t think I’d live to see the first black president of the United States. A young, brilliant man, who has done so well despite everything against him, including people trying to prove he’s not an American citizen. Many people of my age didn’t think he’d win. His win really signified something great in the struggle for civil rights. Also, 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. We were out in front, we were courageous.
RM: What would you say to Richmonders in 2016 who are trying to become a more cohesive community, despite our past?
ECJ: I would say, we should know our history and not run from it. I would also say that it’s an ongoing struggle for us to understand each other and work together. Equality for all is still not a reality; so there’s no time to stand still and do nothing. The struggle continues.