Happy 100th Birthday to Ms. Esther Cooper Jackson

Today is the 100th birthday of Ms. Esther Cooper Jackson who was the LEGENDARY editor of the Freedomways periodical and the co-founder of the Southern Negro Youth Congress.  She worked with Paul and Eslanda Robeson; with W.E.B. Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois. Ms. Jackson allowed me the opportunity to interview her on February 29, 2012 for my doctoral dissertation.  Here is my review of a biography about her and her husband called James and Esther Cooper Jackson:  Love and Courage in the Black Freedom Movement.  Thank you Ms. Jackson and Mr. Jackson for your service.  -RF.  

In her book James and Esther Cooper Jackson: Love and Courage in the Black Freedom Movement, Sara Rzeszutek-Haviland states in the Introduction that her goal was to do this radical couple “justice as a historian.”  James and Esther Cooper Jackson were one of the few Black couples in the United States whose marriage survived the Black Freedom Movement.  James was a trained pharmacist and Esther a trained sociologist.  In an era where we witness empire’s use of recorded sexual encounters and allegations of sexual abuse to destroy radical couples, the Jacksons serve as an important example as to how to survive these attempts.  The colleague of James E. Jackson, Henry Winston, wrote that Wall Street monopolists are attempting to “impose a far more racist freeze on Black liberation struggles” (75).  We have seen since the sixties how U.S. government, working on behalf of Wall Street monopoly capital, has imposed a “racist freeze” by having successfully divided Black couples working for radical change, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King; Nelson and Winnie Mandela; Angela Davis and George Jackson.

Rzeszutek-Haviland’s book must be read by all those seeking to build and maintain successful life partnerships while pursuing radical change in U.S. society. This book provides an important blueprint for accomplishing radical change while building and maintaining a successful partnership. She wrote in her introduction that as a historian, she endeavored to do three things of the Jacksons: one, “highlight their humanity,” two, “reveal their attributes and flaws” and three “show their complexity as individuals and as artists” (13).  She succeeds in each of these goals throughout this compelling biography that beautifully explains how an intellectually and romantically involved couple can work together to end racism and capitalism.  However this biography falls short because she looks at the Jacksons through the lens of, as she defines herself, “a historian,” which, by its conservative academic practice, downplays the Jacksons’ greater goals of abolishing racism and capitalism that they expressed in their own writings, particularly This Is My Husband by Esther Cooper Jackson and The View From Here by James E. Jackson Jr.  This theme of ending racism and capitalism is prevalent in all of their writing however the confining conventions of Rzeszutek-Haviland’s academic discipline of history does not allow her to explore the presence of this theme in her biography. This review will look at this biography through the Black Studies lens of what Dr. James Turner calls “a trans-disciplinary rational enterprise, rather than…conventionally construed” lens (Turner 110).   Rzeszutek-Haviland looks at James and Esther Jackson through the lens of a “conventionally construed” historian.  Her lens is “conventionally construed” in several ways.  One is her use of the terms “the Left” and “the Black Freedom movement” interchangeably without clearly defining either.  Her convention causes her to conflate the meanings of what she thinks is “the Left” and “the Black freedom movement.”  Conflating these terms consequently downplays themes of the written works of Esther Cooper Jackson and James E. Jackson.  More important, it ultimately downplays the role of elements of “the Left” funded by Wall Street monopoly capital in undermining the efforts of those like James and Esther Cooper Jackson committed to ending racism and capitalism.  In the twentieth and twenty first century, the Left has played an active role in “imposing a racist freeze on the Black liberation movement” as a result of Wall Street monopoly capital funding. We saw these efforts in 1950 when James E. Jackson had to hide or “go underground” to avoid Smith Act persecution.  Esther Cooper Jackson writes in This Is My Husband that the same Smith Act that caused James to “go underground” and separate himself from his family for five years was sponsored by a Democratic U.S. Senator from the Virginia Howard Smith that belonged to the same Democratic Party funded by Wall Street monopoly that today relies on the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, a self-described “socialist,” to ultimately sheepgoat all of the Left to ultimately support the Wall Street monopoly capitalist Hillary Clinton (E Jackson 8).

In his Author’s Note to the collection of his writings The View From Here: Commentaries on Peace and Freedom, James E. Jackson writes in 1963 that “the most evident need of our nation—that is, the need for a major overhauling of its outmoded economic system” (J Jackson 1)  Rzeszutek Haviland’s biography includes little to no discussion of the role of these themes in the writing of the Jacksons, nor does it include how elements of the left, freeze or crush efforts to abolish racism and capitalism. Her lens as a conventional historian contravenes her goal of doing the Jacksons “justice.”

In her introduction, Rzeszutek Haviland writes that the Jacksons made the conclusion that “communism was a good solution for the nation’s racial and class problems” (8).  However, her lens as a conventional historian requires that she caters to justifying capitalism’s destruction of the communist ideal.  She wrote that before meeting Esther, James Jr. (Jack, as she calls him) learned that “the Negro people have a powerful ally in the white workers and that it is the self interest of both to unite in common struggle…the task of correct leadership was to fight for this unity of the Southern people—Negro and white workers—to weld it, and to win allies for them in the nation and throughout the world” (30).  What Rzeszutek Haviland writes about the Communist Party’s belief about the N.A.A.C.P. towards mass action is true about the role of academia towards the progress of the Black freedom movement: “the N.A.A.C.P. inhibited mass action by catering to the bourgeois legal system…it did ‘the job of social fascists—diverting blacks and whites from forming ‘fighting alliances’ in the streets’” (35).  Academic presses, including the University of Kentucky press that published this biography is no more interested in accomplishing the Jacksons’ “good solution” of communism than the monopoly capital that funds the university’s board of trustees, and all boards of trustees in the nation.  This conventionally construed lack of sincere interest in accomplishing communism is evident in what Rzeszutek Haviland mentions and does not mention.  She is unable to identify how individuals within the N.A.A.C.P. validate the Communist Party’s assessment of it, such as W.E.B. Du Bois before 1940 who helped to also inhibit mass action, particularly along with A. Philip Randolph by blunting of the mass action inspired by Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Assocation.  As a founder of the N.A.A.C.P. Du Bois wrote a 1923 letter to the Secretary of State Charles Hughes calling for Garvey’s deportation from the U.S. to Jamaica (Martin 329).  The W.E.B. Du Bois since 1940 revered by the Jacksons and Rzeszutek Haviland obviously learned from his mistakes a lesson that Jack learned very early in his life, a lesson Garvey taught about white philanthropy, and a lesson we see in the N.A.A.C.P.’s 2017 call according to journalist Lee Fang, to increase privatization of the internet, that because of its monopoly capital funding, the N.A.A.C.P. ultimately inhibits mass action, then and now.  Jack’s quest was to achieve a “mass action” not just of Black people that the Garvey movement focused on, but a “unity” of Black workers and white workers: “Jack…believed in a radical overhaul of the social and economic structures of the United States as a path to social justice and equality for black Americans” (39).  Rzeszutek Haviland seems loathe to acknowledge this belief in the actions and writings of the Jacksons but this belief is the proverbial elephant in the room.

By the time the Jacksons met, they had “each independently committed to fighting racism and capitalism” (49).  On assignment in Tennessee working with Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, James met Esther while she was working on her Master’s degree in Sociology and living in a Methodist settlement house.  By then Jack helped to organize the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC) when he was earning his Master’s Degree from the School of Pharmacy at Howard University.  Jack and Ed Strong invited Esther to join the SNYC in 1948.  Esther’s decision to join “beyond one summer” was mostly political, but her romantic involvement with Jack was also a factor (58).  On May 8, 1941, Jack and Esther married in Bessemer, Alabama.  James and Esther had a love “that was forged on a hard, unconventional path [where] each brought a commitment to activism to their marriage and part of their compatibility was built around that shared obligation” (279).  Their shared obligation included their work in SNYC that “emphasized ways to promote equality in the United States by both participating in and critiquing the war” (62).  And the war at this time is the so called Second World War.  Jack was drafted into the army in 1943 where he worked as a pharmacist with the 823rd Engineering Batallion of the China-Burma-India Theater, that “rarely saw much of the action that any of the combat units might have seen” (70).  Rzeszutek Haviland writes that “the couple represented the fluidity of Black nationalism and internationalism, radicalism and reform” (79).  For those within the Black Freedom movement, there is no “fluidity” between radicalism and reform.  James E. Jackson’s celebration of the Cuban revolution in the pages of the periodical he edited called The Worker celebrated only radicalism and not reform.  Rzeszutek Haviland spends much less attention on The Worker and much more attention on the periodical that Esther edited Freedomways. 

Rzeszutek Haviland’s best, most unconstrued, most remarkable work as a historian is her describing the letters between Esther and Jack during this second world war: “through Esther and Jack’s World War II letters, the personal dynamics of a family disrupted by global conflict coalesce” (87).  Esther makes the beautifully romantic statement; “I’m not only your wife, but your best friend and companion.  And darling, if you disagree with anything I’ve said or done—tell me always.  Our marriage must serve as an ‘example’ to all our friends, relatives, and the youth of the South” (68).  In her pamphlet she said that what impressed her most about him was “his sincere and passionate desire to change the Jim Crow South and to unite Negro and white in bringing about that change” (25).  They were very clear that the Jim Crow order, like the institution of chattel slavery was intended to blunt not only mass action but the successful development of the Black family.  Despite the growth of monopoly capital pursuing Jim Crow and preventing the unity of Black and white workers, the Jacksons were clear about how their model of the family served to accomplish their goal of the “good solution of Communism.”

In the third chapter, Rzeszutek Haviland discusses the Cold War in the context of laws passed from the Executive Branch, but not in terms of the U.S. government repression of the American Communist Party discussed at length by journalist Betty Medsger in her book The Burglary and in my previous review of her book published by The Advocate.  The COINTELPRO operations were started by J. Edgar Hoover in 1956 and became his secret means of punishing, through harassment people for radical speech or Communist Party membership (Medsger 344).  The Smith Act which caused Jack to go underground, included persecution of thousands of individuals that were thought to be Communists or Communist sympathizers.  By 1946, Jack hoped that his new position as Louisiana state director of the Communist Party would allow him to lead a drive against fascism in the South, however he had a “tumultuous and life-threatening experience” and relocated to Michigan where he worked as education director of Michigan’s Communist Party (108, 114).  Rzeszutek Haviland writes that on June 20, 1951, Jack was indicted under the Smith act for “conspiracy to teach or advocate the violent overthrow of the government” (124). While Rzeszutek Haviland is clear that this charge was politically motivated, she does not identify how elements of “the Left” helped persecute Jackson for his beliefs in Communism.  Ironically, she quotes a Black literary scholar in Mary Helen Washington to make a point in the fourth chapter that “the Left offered black writers the institutional support that they could get nowhere else in white America” (127) This is the same Left that also as the “Cold War” escalated, worked with monopoly capital to stop Jackson’s effort from creating unity between Black workers and white workers.  Institutional support also came from places besides white philanthropists.  For Jack, it came from the Black press who covered him more favorable than the mainstream press.  Newspapers such as the New York-based Freedom and the Baltimore-based Afro-American were sympathetic to the implications of the Smith Act in ways that Rzeszutek Haviland did not describe.  She also tries to separate the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) from the Black Freedom movement when she asserts its “decreased influence on the Black freedom movement” since the 1950s.  This narrative, a result of her conventionally construed lens as a historian, suggests that the decreasing influence of the Communist Party was a result of what she called “complex Marxist theory” and not the more prevalent government repression of Communists.

On Friday, December 2nd, 1956, Jack turned himself in.  Within the next year, the Supreme Court case of Yates v. United States declared the Smith Act unconstitutional and Jack’s case was “among the convictions that were reversed” (176).  He saw labor as the biggest key to establishing unity between white and Black workers, however what Rzeszutek Haviland does not describe is how labor was controlled or frozen by monopoly capital.  Instead, she writes about Jack’s increasing reliance on unions to build unity in a postwar economy as “pragmatic”: “Jack’s pragmatism in his approach to the link between the CPUSA and civil rights proved to be a crucial tool” (184).  Rzeszutek Haviland does not define what she means by “civil rights” and how these organizations would ultimately undermine “the goal” of Communism.  According to her lens in this biography, “civil rights” seems to simply mean the right to vote or end Jim Crow discrimination.  This is far short of the Jacksons’ theme of “the goal” of Communism.  This meaning also comes nowhere close to the Black Panther Party Ten Point Platform which was closer in ideology to “the goal” of Communism that the Jacksons believed in.  What Rzeszutek Haviland is actually narrating since James’s release is his retreat from grassroots organizations.  And she celebrates this retreat when she writes that “for African Americans, nonviolence offered empowerment, and integration brought gradual and pragmatic results [emphasis added]” (195).  Histories of this period like Rzeszutek Haviland’s that are promoted by the academic industry, celebrate “civil rights” as “pragmatic” and castigates the Black Power movement as violent and unrealistic. This celebration certainly erases the radicalism that the Jacksons endorsed and provides a false sense of hope that we see repeated by the mainstream media during and after the election of Barack Obama.  After turning himself in, the CPUSA was a shell of what it once was because, as his colleague Henry Winston would later write in 1973, monopoly capital successfully “destroyed organized labor” (Winston 267).  It is impossible, as Rzeszutek Haviland writes, for civil rights organizations like the N.A.A.C.P. and the National Urban League to “be a crucial tool” in working with the CPUSA because their goals were absolutely at odds.

Although she does not discuss Jack’s editorship of The Worker that celebrated the Cuban revolution, Rzeszutek Haviland does devote a complete chapter to Esther’s editorship of Freedomways periodical from 1960 to 1985Esther originally co-edited Freedomways with Shirley Graham Du Bois and later she co-edited it with Jean Carey Bond.  Rzeszutek Haviland writes that Freedomways “offered a form of Black radicalism” (200).  In fairness to Rzeszutek Haviland’s discussion of Black Power, she does write that “Jack and the [Communist] Party worked to contribute to a growing discussion of Black Power by offering guidance and promoting specifically a Communist viewpoint” (217).  Rzeszutek Haviland’s discussion of Jack’s years with The Worker periodical are far less complimentary than her discussion of Freedomways, and more fatalistic.  She discusses The Worker mainly in the context of the McCarran Act and how it censored this periodical.  She does not describe The Worker in terms of Jack’s incredibly necessary, analytical articles praising independence movements in Africa, South America, Central America, and the Caribbean against U.S. imperialism.  Her discussion of Jack’s analysis of the urban riots in Newark and Detroit as evidence of Blacks “being victimized by class exploitation” begged an extended discussion of Jack’s articles in The Worker tying this class struggle in the United States to the successful class struggle that was accomplished in the 1959 Cuban revolution.  Rzeszutek Haviland ignores Jack’s most important discussion of class struggle in his April 30, 1961 article in The Worker days after the Cubans united in class struggle against the Allen Dulles-inspired U.S. imperialist 1961 invasion at Playa Girón in Cuba: “the Cuban revolution has taken the land from the greedy monopolists and restored it to the people.  It has nationalized big industry and set it to serving the needs of the people of Cuba rather than the profit lust of foreign owners” (J Jackson 35).  Jack was one the first U.S. journalists to celebrate the Cuban revolution, a successful example of class struggle in real time. This is absent in Rzeszutek Haviland’s discussion of Jack’s life, and such an absence is glaring especially since Jack prophetically warned against “liberal intellectuals” whose “special mission was to bewitch American liberals into silent acquiescence” to the crime against Cuba, which was the imperialist war.  Historians with conventional lens like these become these “liberal intellectuals” that Jack warned us against.  This “bewitching” function dovetails with Rzeszutek Haviland’s quoting of Jack and Winston’s critique of the N.A.A.C.P. leaders as “reformist supporters of the white ruling class” who play an inhibiting role in class struggle (169).  Rzeszutek Haviland quotes comprehensive critiques but is not able to apply them to the same Left that she says the Jacksons are a part of.   She describes Jack’s writing in terms of “class struggle.”  Instead, she writes: “The Worker allowed him to promote his distinct view of the Party’s relationship with civil rights” (227).  Jack did not want to promote his Party’s relationship with “civil rights” which is ultimately “reformist.”  He wanted to promote his Party’s relationship with class struggle and obviously presented the Cuban revolution as a successful example of class struggle that CPUSA members should learn from and emulate.  Immediately after his return in 1956, Rzeszutek Haviland writes that in the sixties with the advent of the Black Panther Party, the CPUSA “membership increased” (232).  Her statement that the “leftist groups cherry picked ideas from Marxism-Leninism, Trotskyism, and Maoism” centers theories of class struggle in Europe, instead of looking at how the periodicals that Jack and Esther edited, The Worker and Freedomways, supported the class struggles of the Cuban and Grenadian revolutions.  In a 1983 issue of the Freedomways periodical edited by Esther and Jean Carey Bond, Jack H. O’Dell wrote an article lambasting the U.S. military intervention to abort the socialist economy of Grenada founded by their revolution in class struggle in 1979.

8,000 American troops, backed up by more than a dozen battleships and a nuclear-armed submarine named after the Confederate general, Stonewall Jackson, were sent into Grenada to do battle with a local army of about 800.  Readers will recall, too, that the media were prohibited by order of the Pentagon from covering this adventure, which had the effect of cutting the U.S. public off completely from any factual information…United States foreign policy is a stridently racist foreign policy, backed up by an aggressive military machine.”  (O’Dell 8)

Instead of discussing how Freedomways continued the discussion of class struggle against U.S. imperialism, Rzeszuetek Haviland spends pages on the more trivial matters regarding Freedomways such as Alice Walker’s fictional depiction of Black men in her popular novel The Color Purple and Esther’s disagreement with Paul Robeson Junior’s choice for Martin Duberman to write the biography of Paul Robeson.  On Duberman, Rzeszuetek Haviland quotes Esther: “I am weary and intolerant at this late date of white authors becoming the authoritative source of giants in Black history.  This is not to say that a white person is incapable of producing a worthy historical work about a Black personality or period” (269).  What Esther said about Duberman here is also in part true of Rzeszuetek Haviland because her “conventionally construed” lens turns the Jacksons into reformists, which they were not.  Her final blow to their legacy is her claim that “Jack found himself with no retirement package” from the CPUSA (271).  This claim upholds a capitalist ethos similar to the one Peniel Joseph upholds when he writes about Kwame Ture, among other mischaracterizations that I identified, that he “made a career out of financial chastity.”  Both Rzsezutek Haviland and Joseph in their biographies of radicals use a lens of a conventional historian that downplays class struggle. They both suggest that if class struggle doesn’t offer a retirement package or pension, its worthless.  This is, of course, the carrot stick of monopoly capital.  This also defies the lessons that Rzsezutek Haviland said Jack read in Fredrich Engels’ The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State which assumes the industrial family’s inability to live off a retirement (54).  This biography of Rzsezutek Haviland has definitely not established her, in Esther’s words, as “the authoritative source of giants in Black history” like the Jacksons, however this biography is, without question, “a worthy historical work about a Black personality or period.”

REFERENCES

Jackson, Esther Cooper. This Is My Husband: Fighter For His People, Political Refugee. Pamphlet. Brooklyn: National Committee to Defend Negro Leadership, 1953. Print.

Jackson, James E. The View From Here: Commentaries on Peace and Freedom. New York: Publishers New Press, 1963. Print.

Martin, Tony. Race First: The Ideological and Organizational Struggles of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association.  Dover: The Majority, 1986. Print.

Medsger, Betty. The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. Print.

O’Dell, J.H. “U.S. Foreign Policy and World Development” Freedomways. 24(1). Winter 1984. Print.

Turner, James. “Black/Africana Studies, Then and Now: Reconstructing A Century of Intellectual Inquiry and Political Engagement, 1915—2015.  Journal of African American History. 100(1). Winter 2015. 87-118. Print.

Winston, Henry. Strategy For A Black Agenda: A Critique of New Theories of Liberation in the United States and Africa.  New York: International Publishers, 1973. Print.

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