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.