James and Esther Cooper Jackson remain largely unknown in [End Page 118] popular narratives of the civil rights movement. Even in the scholarly literature, their stature as central civil rights figures has failed to garner them adequate attention. This accessible dual biography of the activist couple offers an opportunity for their story to reach the wider audience it deserves. James and Esther Cooper Jackson: Love and Courage in the Black Freedom Movement chronicles the relationship and parallel careers of two lives utterly intertwined in the quest for black Americans’ full humanity. In an engrossing narrative spanning nine decades, Sara Rzeszutek Haviland weaves romance, war, separation, and struggle in a story that speaks to central themes in civil rights, gender, and family history. The Jacksons lived the long civil rights movement, beginning as activists in the 1930s and continuing as key leaders throughout their sixty-three-year marriage. Their story demonstrates the fluidity of ideology within the movement, the national—not merely southern—scope of the struggle, the movement’s international context, its roots in radical labor struggles, and the central role of women, among other important themes.
Haviland’s narrative highlights the fluidity and variety of activist efforts in the twentieth century. Although James, who was usually referred to as Jack, joined the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) in 1931 and remained a lifelong member, he never insisted that others in the freedom struggle, including his wife, adopt his philosophy. His particular brand of communism privileged the struggle for racial equality as its top priority. Although Esther did join the party and communism informed her commitments to the black freedom struggle, she displayed little commitment to CPUSA organization and allowed her membership to lapse.
The book focuses on a relationship as much as it narrates two intertwined lives. The Jacksons found their way to each other through their shared commitment to black equality. Also fierce advocates of gender equality, the couple forged a relationship in which Esther’s career and activist endeavors were equal to—and occasionally even greater than—Jack’s. In spite of their deep love for one another—abundantly documented in an immense cache of letters from the World War II [End Page 119] years—the Jackson’s relationship suffered intense trials. Shortly after their 1941 marriage, Jack was drafted into the army, and they spent the next three years apart while he worked on an unstimulating assignment in Burma. For her part, Esther remained highly active with the Southern Negro Youth Congress and even missed Jack’s postwar homecoming because of a trip to London as a delegate to the first World Youth Conference.
The Jacksons’ relationship suffered further in the Cold War climate that stigmatized communism and effectively made CPUSA membership illegal. Indicted under the Smith Act (1951), Jack went underground for five years to escape prosecution. The couple had no contact during this period. While Esther worried about her husband and endured the difficulties of life as a single parent, intense FBI scrutiny and harassment magnified these problems. The FBI put all family members under surveillance, made threatening phone calls, and arranged the expulsion of the Jacksons’ daughter Kathy from a nursery school program. Esther used the ordeal to write a pamphlet about the family’s plight, exposing the hypocrisy of the FBI’s intense anticommunist efforts as juxtaposed against its tepid endeavors to find and prosecute white perpetrators of crimes against blacks.
Esther’s career ultimately eclipsed her husband’s. Both served as journal editors—he for the CPUSA paper The Worker and she for Freedomways, which she helped to found with W. E. B. and Shirley Graham Du Bois. The Communist Party declined so precipitously under Cold War repression that Jack’s audience dwindled. Esther, however, sat at the center of unfolding, ongoing, and pivotal conversations about the freedom struggle. She valued dialogue and exchange over ideological commitments to particular philosophies, and her willingness to make Freedomways a platform for a wide range of voices often placed her...