James Jackson: Communist leader and pioneer fighter for civil rights
James E. Jackson Jr. | Illustration by Shawn Yu / People's World Archives

James E. Jackson Jr., (1914-2007), a leader of the Communist Party USA for many years, began his eventful life in political action at age 16 and he remained an unwavering fighter for equality, democracy, world peace, and socialism all his days.

Not the least of Jackson’s achievements was his role in the early 1960s as editor-in-chief of The Worker, a People’s World predecessor. Many of his incisive writings from those years were published as a book, Revolutionary Tracings (International Publishers, 1974).

The chapter “On the Theory of Black Liberation in the United States” is an excerpt from his 1957 report to the CPUSA’s Black Liberation Commission, where Jackson argued for a change in the CPUSA’s position on the path to freedom and equality for the African-American people.

Black people in the United States “are not constituted as a separate nation,” Jackson argued. The migration of millions of Black farmers to cities in the South and North, and their integration into the urban working class had altered the social and class composition of the African-American people, he said.

“The whole history of the Black freedom movement,” he wrote, “is that of amassing the maximum self-organization, unity, and strength of Black people, and allying their forces with the major progressive causes and developments in the complementary struggle for full equal rights for Black people and progress for the nation.”

The path to equality, he said, must be “within a broad multiracial coalition of the oppressed and exploited to put an end to the rule of the monopoly successors of the slave power.”

James and Esther Cooper Jackson, in the early years of their marriage. | People’s World Archives

Jackson devoted his life to building that multiracial, labor-led coalition.

“Jim is a consummate teacher of Marxism-Leninism,” Jarvis Tyner, then the Executive Vice Chair of the Communist Party, said at the time of Jackson’s 87th birthday in 2001.

“At the same time, he has spent a lifetime in the front lines of the struggle, the first African-American regional organizer in the South. Sometimes, his life was in danger. He is a great fighter who trained many young Communists—he was one of the first Communist leaders I met.”

The untold story of Jim Jackson and his wife, Esther, has only been reclaimed from Cold War anti-communist censorship in recent years.

Julian Bond, a past chairman of the NAACP and a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), in a 2001 e-mail to People’s World, praised Jim and Esther, “whom I know and admire.”

He noted that they organized the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC) decades before SNCC spearheaded the civil rights movement of the 1960s. “SNYC was a model of what Black youth should and ought to do,” Bond said, and “preceded us, dared as we dared, dreamed as we dreamed.”

Esther Jackson also exerted a strong influence on the civil rights movement through her role as managing editor and editor of the magazine Freedomways, founded with the support of Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois. For 25 years, it featured articles on the African-American freedom movement.

The eminent historian David Levering Lewis of Rutgers University interviewed the Jacksons extensively for his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, W.E.B. Du Bois. In it, he describes the friendship that blossomed between Du Bois and the Jacksons.

Many years after their friendship began, Jackson asked Du Bois to join the Communist Party. At a Carnegie Hall celebration of the 100th anniversary of Du Bois’ birth, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., described the African-American scholar’s decision to join the CPUSA as a logical culmination of his life.

2019 marks a century since the founding of the Communist Party USA. To commemorate the anniversary of the oldest socialist organization in the United States, People’s World has launched the article series: 100 Years of the Communist Party USA. Read the other articles published in the series and check out the guidelines about how to submit your own contribution.

In a telephone interview I had with Lewis, he said, “Apart from Jim and Esther
Jackson’s quite special relationship with Du Bois, what stands out for me is Jim’s career in the South.”

Lewis said, “It would be hard to make sense of the civil rights struggles of the ’60s without a knowledge and appreciation of this earlier movement in the South, led by left and progressive forces of several races. Jim and Esther Jackson were very much a part of that movement.”

In 1937, James and Esther joined other African-American students and workers, such as Edward and Augusta Strong, in founding SNYC in Richmond, Virginia. With 534 delegates from across the South, SNYC “operated on the old slogan that the NAACP had projected that a ‘voteless people is a hopeless people,’” Jackson said in a 1992 interview. Many of the leaders, including James, were members of the Young Communist League.

In 1938, SNYC launched a drive to organize tobacco workers, mostly African American women, in Richmond. James, a native of Richmond, spearheaded the organizing drive, which included a militant strike.

“One of the biggest strikes was against the British-American Tobacco Company, which was a gigantic factory,” Jackson said. SNYC initiated the Tobacco Workers and Stemmers Industrial Union (TWSIU), which affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

SNYC organizer Christopher Alston came in to join Jackson in the effort to unionize the tobacco workers. A young Communist, Alston had been an organizer of the auto workers union in Detroit. In their first year, these young activists recruited 5,000 tobacco workers to the TWSIU.

In 1940, SNYC convened a conference in Atlanta. It was the eve of World War II, and the group called for a struggle “on two fronts, against fascism abroad and for democracy and equality at home.” The same year, Jim and Esther moved to Birmingham, Ala., where they continued their work with SNYC. The focus of the struggle was the repeal of the poll tax and for voting rights for millions of disenfranchised Black voters.

“We went to the steel mills, the coal mines and all the smaller areas around Birmingham and we handed out leaflets stating that it was a right for people to vote,” Esther once told me.

She recalled that in 1941, Mildred McAdory, a domestic worker as well as a SNYC activist, refused to give up her seat to a white person on a Birmingham bus. She was arrested, tried and fined. SNYC waged a determined campaign in her defense.

Later, Rosa Parks, the heroine of the civil rights movement, refused to yield her seat, touching off the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which resulted in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Debbie Amis Bell, a Philadelphia school teacher and leader of the CPUSA who died in 2017, knew the Jackson family since her childhood. In the 1960s, she went into the South with SNCC, joining the resurgent lunch counter sit-in movement, voter registration drives, and mass demonstrations.

“When people say ‘snick,’ I always think first of the Southern Negro Youth Congress and Jim and Esther Jackson,” she told the World. “SNYC was the great forerunner. Without that movement in the 1930s and 1940s, SNCC and the civil rights movement of the 1960s would not have been possible.”

Outstanding leaders like Louis and Dorothy Burnham also came of age as SNYC activists. Paul Robeson performed in the South for the first time when he sang at SNYC’s Tuskegee University conference in 1942. All concerts in those days were segregated, with Blacks on one side of the hall and whites on the other, Esther recalled. Robeson defied that racism and the audience was integrated.

Esther’s struggle against racism in the South continued while James was serving in the U.S. Army in Burma during World War II. A white police chief in a small Alabama town imposed a round-the-clock curfew, threatening to shoot on sight any Black person who ventured out. A Black woman escaped and came to SNYC with the news that families were running out of food. Esther, at great personal risk, slipped into the town at night and gathered details of the crisis, which were then publicized. The sheriff was forced to lift the curfew.

During its existence, SNYC received the enthusiastic backing of great African-American leaders like Du Bois, who delivered his “Behold the Land” speech at a 1946 SNYC conference at Columbia, South Carolina. Returning home from Army service after the war, James once again plunged into SNYC activities.

In 1946, Jackson signed up Black veterans in Mississippi to vote for the first time.

A year later, Jackson became the chairman of the Communist Party of Louisiana. Leading a struggle to organize the maritime industry in New Orleans, Jackson was targeted for death and was forced to flee.

A few months later, he became a leader of the Communist auto workers at Ford’s huge Dearborn plant. While there, Esther was a leader of the Michigan branch of the Civil Rights Congress. They shared a house in Detroit with their friend Coleman Young, who was later to serve as the first African-American mayor of Detroit.

Starting in the years of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Jim and Esther helped build a left-center formation, including the Communist Party, that made long strides in the struggle against monopoly capitalist exploitation, racism, and war.

It elected progressive independent candidates to political office, including Communists, such as New York Councilmembers Pete Cacchione and Benjamin J. Davis.

The coalition worked to get important legislation passed in Congress, including Social Security, unemployment insurance, the 40-hour workweek, the minimum wage and the first laws banning job discrimination.

The Wagner Act opened the way for workers to join unions. The coalition organized millions of workers in basic industry.

However, Cold War clouds were gathering and SNYC was forced to disband. The Smith Act arrests of CPUSA leaders in 1948 were the signal that the forces of reaction would use anti-communism to smash that left-center coalition.

James and Esther Jackson with Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois (center). | Courtesy Tamiment Library

“1948 was a watershed for American politics, civil liberties, and even American culture. Progressive ideas were branded as ‘Communist-inspired,’” Lewis explained.

“Jim went underground and eluded an FBI dragnet for five years,” Lewis said. “There is heroism in the fact that he was so determined to carry on the struggle in the face of this FBI manhunt.”

Jackson emerged in 1956 and stood trial at the federal courthouse in New York’s Foley Square. Esther, working with the Committee of Families of Smith Act Defendants, organized the James E. Jackson Defense Committee while caring for their two young daughters.

At Jackson’s trial, Ralph Bunche, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and a teacher at Howard University when Jim was a student, sent a notarized character statement defending Jackson. Du Bois also testified in Jackson’s defense.

“There was a wonderful moment when Jim’s mother took the stand and testified what a good boy her son was,” Lewis said.

Though Jackson was convicted, the Supreme Court nullified the penalties of the Smith Act as unconstitutional in 1957, before Jackson could begin his sentence.

James Jackson at the podium addressing the 18th National Convention of the Communist Party USA in 1966. | TASS / People’s World Archives

Jackson went on to serve for decades in leading positions in the CPUSA, including educational director and international affairs secretary. He traveled widely to Europe and the Soviet Union as a fraternal delegate to meetings of Communist and workers’ parties.

In 1968, he flew to Hanoi in North Vietnam and slipped into South Vietnam, where he observed first-hand the Viet Minh’s struggle against the U.S. aggressors. Jackson was the last U.S. reporter to interview Ho Chi Minh before his death in 1969.

Bell recalled James’ role during a CPUSA convention in Brooklyn in 1968. “Some younger comrades were carried away by the Black Panther Party and thought they were the new wave of the revolution,” Bell said.

“I will never forget how tenaciously Jim defended the leading role of our multiracial working class as the only true revolutionary force. I was endeared to Jim at that point and have remained a friend and admirer ever since.”

This is an updated version of an article originally written on the occasion of James E. Jackson’s 87th birthday in 2001.


Tim Wheeler
Tim Wheeler

Tim Wheeler has written over 10,000 news reports, exposés, op-eds, and commentaries in his half-century as a journalist for the Worker, Daily World, and People’s World. Tim also served as editor of the People’s Weekly World newspaper.  His book News for the 99% is a selection of his writings over the last 50 years representing a history of the nation and the world from a working-class point of view. After residing in Baltimore for many years, Tim now lives in Sequim, Wash.