James and Esther Jackson and the long civil rights revolution

With African American History Month about to start, I had the occasion to attend a very moving event at the Tamiment Library (New York University) on Tuesday. It was a celebration/book party recognizing the tremendous contribution of James and Esther Jackson in the struggle for African American freedom, and welcoming the publication of a new book entitled "Red Activists and Black Freedom."

The book, which is based on the Jacksons' papers, deals with the forgotten history of the civil rights movement during the 1930s and '40s. That was when the Communist Party USA played an outstanding role in the fight against Jim Crow in the South - an effort that set the stage for the upsurge in the 1960s.

Michael Nash, director of the Tamiment Library and one of the editors of the book, described the Jackson archives as "nationally important" because they show the relationship between the struggle in the South during the '30s and '40s for black freedom and the Communist Party.

The party played a leading role in organizations like the Southern Negro Youth Congress, the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, and the Sharecroppers Union and in the organization of the tobacco industry in Virginia and steel in Birmingham, Alabama. The role of the party is well known in defense of the Scottsboro Youths but it was involved in many other struggles too - to register voters, organize unions, defend civil liberties, stop lynching, etc. People like Esther and Jim Jackson, Edward and Augusta Strong and Louis and Dorothy Burnham were in the forefront of the party's work in the South.

The book "Red Activists and Black Freedom" is a series of essays by a number of scholars and activists based on a symposium titled, "James and Esther Jackson, the American Left and the Origins of the Modern Civil Rights Movement," held at the Tamiment on Oct. 28, 2006. With the success of that event it was decided to publish the presentations in book form. The book was edited by historian David Levering Lewis with Michael Nash and Daniel Leab.

Participating in Tuesday's event, which drew a packed house, were a number of panelists including the book's editors and some of its contributing authors - Tim Johnson, Maurice Jackson, Sara E. Rzeszutek and Michael Anderson - who each briefly discussed their essays on the Jacksons.

The event was topped off by moving speech by Esther Jackson. She spoke about how supportive both their parents were. She recounted how her mother supported her decision to go to Birmingham to work with Ed Strong after she finished her Master's degree at Fisk University.

She told the story of how Jim decided not become a pharmacist after he graduated from pharmacy school but instead decided to join Chris Alston and help organize tobacco workers in Virginia. When Jim was cleaning out his father's drug store in Richmond, Va., to prepare it to be sold, he found dozens of IOUs from striking tobacco workers in the basement, which meant that all along his father had been helping the strike by giving free medicines to the striking workers.

Esther also spoke movingly of her own experience with the strength of the black family. Something, she said, "we don't hear much about."

She told the beautiful story of the thousands of pages of love letters that she and Jim had written to each other when Jim was in Burma during the Second World War. They are part of the archives at the Tamiment.

The book reveals the tremendous work of the party which set the stage for the great upsurge of the 1950s and '60s. Esther Jackson noted that without the efforts of David Levering Lewis "the book would not have been possible." In his remarks, Lewis made the point that the civil rights movement had a long history, it didn't start with Martin Luther King and it continues on today. "We are not in any post-racial period," he said.

One of the essays in the book was written by Angela Davis whose mother Sallye was also a member of the Southern Negro Youth Conference and played a leading role in the defense of her daughter during her trial.

The history of the Communist Party in the South during the '30s and 40s was almost expunged from the historic record during the McCarthy Era, one of the speakers remarked. We saw a bit of this period portrayed in the writings of Richard Wright and recently in the movie "The Great Debaters," but to get a real picture as we celebrate and recommit during Black History Month, "Red Activists and Black Freedom" is a must-read.


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  • Hello from the european union!
    I`m living in northern germany and i like to get an information pakage about your politically party.
    I like to now more about the cold war situation and the
    danger for the freedom of speach act in the robert mac carthy era.
    I am excanging voter i vote green and sozial democratic parties.
    i am searching for marx/Engels works on Dvd-Rom.
    I only have lenin works and parts of the ME-Texts on cd.

    Tobias Kröger
    Gut Gothard 13
    27356 Rotenburg (Wümme)
    Germany/European union/2 nd wourld.

    Posted by Tobias Kröger, 10/29/2011 3:05pm (4 years ago)

  • Dear Comrade Jarvis Tyner;
    Dear Comrades of the CPUSA!

    I am very proud of having met comrade Tyner for long time ago. That was in East-Berlin (GDR) under the youth festival in 1973. At the same time as Angela Davis and her syster. It was quiet an impression. Gus Hall was still alive. My heart, my feelings are allways with you, the American communists. The patriotic action of your party has allways been at the same time an internationalist voice. You are the profound counsciesness of the brave american working class. Capitalism deceit must be felt harshly by our american brothers as well as european and the worldwide working class. Our struggle for a socialist society is the same and best of all we shall prevail!
    Yours trully

    Posted by Rui Almeida, 08/17/2011 8:40am (4 years ago)

  • Your claims of the lack of African American freedom in America are bald faced affront to Martin Luther King. Go ahead and write such tripe but I have the right not to buy it or read it. That's called freedom.

    Posted by JD Carp, 09/28/2010 1:32pm (5 years ago)

  • Cuba, despite being so poor, has a better healthcare system than the most powerful country in the world. Stick that in your ignorance hole you call a mouth.

    And really, the corruption in American politics is sickening, you have fun with that, I'm going to look for real solutions, not the old dog and pony show the Democrats and Republican put on.

    Posted by Brandon, 07/22/2010 6:59pm (5 years ago)

  • Cuba has a communistic society. You could try that. Government = corruption. I'd rather live free in corruption than not free in corruption, just sayin'

    Posted by C.Stevens, 06/04/2010 6:02pm (5 years ago)

  • Move to Russia

    Posted by S. Thompson, 04/23/2010 7:44am (6 years ago)

  • Move to Russia

    Posted by S. Thompson, 04/23/2010 7:43am (6 years ago)

  • The facts of this article are very,very important to African American history,and therefore the history of the working-class,especially in the South as brother Frank Chapman writes.
    We take aggressive action in recruiting efforts of African Americans,for good reason,but its somewhat disappointing to see so little response to excellent articles like this one.
    Popular art like "The Great Debaters" is welcome,but the role and place of the Communists in this period is very much minimized and falsified.
    In the St. Louis Metropolitan area,it is little known that Dr. brother James E. Jackson had refuge underground in the 50s with the famous labor leaders,Ernest and Deverne(sp) Calloway,in Kinloch,MO,a stone's throw from St. Louis.
    Soon,more and more African Americans will see the true role and purpose of CPUSA,thanks to books like "
    Red Activists and Black Freedom"and the work of the Jacksons and the CPUSA.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 01/30/2010 6:49pm (6 years ago)

  • An excellent news story as we enter African American History Month. I can't wait to read the book.
    Also I couldn't help but be reminded how Esther Jackson continued to be a major contributor and influence on the Civil Rights Movement as the managing editor of "Freedomways Magazine" which covered the freedom movement in the South for two decades (1961-1983). And Jim Jackson too as editor of "The Worker" and his book "Revolutionary Tracings."
    Finally, and on a more personal note, had it not been for Esther and Jim Jackson I might still be in prison for they were the ones who first called national attention to my case through the pages of "Freedomways" in the Summer of 1966.

    Posted by Frank Chapman, 01/29/2010 7:32am (6 years ago)

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