Book Review: James and Esther Cooper Jackson: Love and Courage in the Black Freedom Movement by Sarah Rzeszutek Haviland

Sarah Rzeszutek Haviland, James and Esther Cooper Jackson: Love and Courage in the Black Freedom Movement, (University Press of Kentucky, 2015), Cloth $45.00. pp.384.

In this dual biography, Sarah Haviland traces the political and intellectual career of activist couple James and Esther Cooper Jackson. The Jacksons were long-term civil rights leaders and members of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). Both held prominent positions in the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC), an interracial civil rights organisation working for equality in the US south from 1937-1949. After anti-Communist efforts led to the disbanding of SNYC, the Jacksons moved north, where James Jackson became a leader in the Communist Party and Esther Cooper Jackson became co-founder and managing editor of civil rights movement magazine Freedomways (1960-1985). Utilising a combination of personally-conducted oral history interviews and archival material, Haviland argues that an analysis of the couple demonstrates that communist-affiliated activists of the 1930s Popular Front era were able to adapt their activism and influence the trajectory of the modern civil rights movement that emerged in the 1960s. Haviland also notes that the couple provides an important case study for analysing gender and family dynamics in social movements and the inextricable link between the personal and political in the lives of individual activists.

Haviland’s approach places her in the company of other recent scholarship questioning the usefulness of a dominant narrative that fails to acknowledge continuity between seemingly disparate eras of the black freedom struggle. Dayo F. Gore’s Radicalism at the Crossroads: African American Women Activists in the Cold War (2011) and Erik S. McDuffie’s Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism and the Making of Black Left Feminism (2011), for example, have explored African American women’s use of Communism to carve out a space for leadership and articulate a distinct black left feminism that demonstrates how 1930s black activists shaped the Civil Rights and Second Wave Feminist movements of the 1950s and 60s.

It is firmly within this revisionist scholarship that Haviland is operating. The chronological structure of the book enables her to explore the development of the couple’s political ideologies and activist strategies as they grew older and faced a changing political landscape. Analysis of Freedomways magazine stands as the book’s strongest argument for this continuation. A founder of the magazine, Esther Cooper Jackson served as managing editor for its twenty-five-year run from 1960-1985. Building on the work of Ian Rocksborough-Smith, Haviland argues that the ‘expanding ideological breadth of the civil rights movement in the 1960s presented a unique opportunity for its editors to draw on their activist backgrounds’ (194). With the emergence of an increasingly bold youth cohort of activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the dissipation of McCarthy style suppression, Cooper Jackson and her colleagues of the Old Left positioned themselves as a vital link between the older generation and new civil rights activists.

It is Haviland’s focus on the Jacksons’ romantic relationship as an activist couple that is perhaps the book’s most significant contribution to scholarship on the civil rights movement. Haviland argues that the couple’s shared Communist principles and commitment to political action strengthened their personal relationship and enabled them to develop a more gender egalitarian marriage. This argument is developed through an analysis of the couple’s WWII correspondence. James Jackson was drafted in 1943 and deployed to Burma, while Esther remained in the US, taking up the position of Executive Secretary of the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC). Through analysis of their letters during the war, Haviland argues that their relationship was built around both personal concerns and their participation in the black freedom movement, with SNYC work, army service, communism and activism being infused in their family life (58). Throughout the war, the Jacksons used their personal correspondence not only to share their love for one another and maintain morale while they were apart, but also as a space to discuss and develop their political ideologies and strategies for combatting racism back home in the US, thus demonstrating the inextricable link between the couple’s commitment to each other and to political activism.

Haviland provides an important contribution to the analysis of activists who remain understudied in scholarship of the civil rights movement and the US Left. However there are limitations to her work. The choice of a dual biography naturally prevents a full analysis of James and Esther Cooper Jackson individually, as activists with strategies and careers often distinct from one another. Esther Cooper Jackson, though committed to Communist principles, was never active in the Party to the extent her husband was. While her organisational fluidity allowed the creation of a coalitional publication that could contribute directly to the civil rights movement, James Jackson’s continued commitment to the CPUSA and its integrationist class unity ideology was at odds with the emerging separatist focus of Black Power in the 1960s. Though he sought to set a civil rights agenda within the Party, it would seem James Jackson’s commitment to an organisation that had lost much of it political influence prevented him from directly shaping the civil rights movement. Moreover, the book’s focus on the couple’s loving relationship poses the danger of romanticising a complex era of struggle both politically for the country and for the Jacksons personally. The Jacksons spent a total of eight years apart during the early years of their marriage, but, rather than explore how a commitment to political activism may have caused struggle and conflict within their relationship, Haviland paints a rose-tinted picture, skimming over the effect of Communist persecution, and thus preventing a nuanced analysis of the effect of political activism on family life.

With this book Haviland shows a continuity of activism among African Americans of the Old Left into the 1960s. Though their activism may not have always influenced the trajectory of the civil rights movement, they remained personally committed to the freedom struggle. Her intervention on the effects of political activism on family life represents a new and interesting area of study that has yet to be explored in depth. Though this book is not without its limitations, Haviland raises important questions about the role of the Old Left, the changing nature of activism and the interplay of marriage, family and activism during the civil rights movement.

Lauren Eglen

Lauren Eglen is a PhD candidate at the University of Nottingham. Her project explores how black women's leadership operates in different institutional spaces. Using the activism of Esther Cooper Jackson as a particular focus, she looks at how African American women adopted varying leadership styles and strategies relative to the space in which they were working. Her project complicates current narratives of black women's leadership in the long black freedom struggle, demonstrating the ways in which space shapes activist strategy and moving beyond the local/national binary of current leadership scholarship.

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About Lauren Eglen

Lauren Eglen is a PhD candidate at the University of Nottingham. Her project explores how black women's leadership operates in different institutional spaces. Using the activism of Esther Cooper Jackson as a particular focus, she looks at how African American women adopted varying leadership styles and strategies relative to the space in which they were working. Her project complicates current narratives of black women's leadership in the long black freedom struggle, demonstrating the ways in which space shapes activist strategy and moving beyond the local/national binary of current leadership scholarship.
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