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Esther Cooper Jackson, civil rights writer, leader for decades, dies at 105

Civil rights activist Esther Cooper Jackson at Harvard's W. E. B. Du Bois Institute in Cambridge in 2011.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

In 1940, Esther Cooper Jackson was at a crossroads. One route led north to the University of Chicago, where a fellowship would let her pursue a doctorate. The other led to Alabama, where her future husband was a leader of a Black voting rights initiative for the recently formed Southern Negro Youth Congress.

She headed south and became a civil rights trailblazer in a number of ways, including becoming the executive secretary of an organization that wasn’t “dominated by male leadership, like later movements,” she told Richmond magazine in 2016.

“The women took leadership roles, because we believed that women were just as fierce leaders as men; women had the same rights as men,” she said of the Southern Negro Youth Congress. “We were very independent; many of us, even after we got married, kept our maiden names as sort of a lesson to the men and everyone else that we were individuals. So there was a little bit of feminism mixed in, even way back then at the start.”

Ms. Jackson, who moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Sherrill House in Jamaica Plain seven years ago to live closer to family, died Aug. 23, two days after turning 105.

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She had lectured at a Harvard University summer institute for several years, before and after moving to Boston, and also was a featured speaker at places such as the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“At a time when the gender consciousness that has helped to transform our everyday lives had not yet entered the mainstream, Esther insisted on the equality of women,” the activist and writer Angela Davis wrote in an e-mail.

“Her work helped to create the historical conditions of possibility for Black Feminism — and indeed for the anticapitalist, antiracist feminism that defines the broad commitments of so many today,” said Davis, who was a toddler when her family and Ms. Jackson’s family began developing a close friendship.

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From 1961 to 1986, Ms. Jackson was managing editor of Freedomways: A Quarterly Review of the Freedom Movement. The influential publication counted James Baldwin and Gwendolyn Brooks among its contributors, and provided a launching ground for writers such as Alice Walker.

“There were very few spaces for these types of serious Black writers to publish their work,” Ms. Jackson told Richmond magazine. “Freedomways acted as a bridge for them and introduced their work to a wider audience.”

Ms. Jackson “was a pathbreaker in just so many ways,” said Margaret A. Burnham, a university distinguished professor of law at Northeastern University School of Law.

The Burnham, Davis, and Jackson families have been close friends for decades, and Margaret Burnham drew closer still to Ms. Jackson after she moved to Sherrill House in 2015.

During visits, “I began to get a true appreciation for Esther’s unique role in history and became terribly impressed with her brilliance,” Burnham said. “Her mind was enormously hungry and always in action.”

Ms. Jackson “had a stunning library there at Sherrill House,” Burnham said, and “would pull down a current book that she was reading. She was always involved in the world of ideas, political discourse, and cultural trends. She stayed on top of that not just in her very active days, but until the end.”

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Born in Arlington, Va., on Aug. 21, 1917, Esther Cooper was the second of three daughters. Their father was George Cooper, who was an Army officer before working for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Their mother, Esther Irving Cooper, was a teacher and stenographer who was president of Arlington’s NAACP branch.

“When we were growing up, our parents, particularly my mother, said, ‘Yes, I want you to get as much education as you can. But I hope you don’t think your education is just for you, that you’re getting it just to advance yourself as individuals, but that you will know that you’re getting it for our people,’ " Ms. Jackson said in a 2014 interview with “The Laura Flanders Show.”

Ms. Jackson went to Oberlin College in Ohio, from which she graduated in 1938 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. She received a master’s in sociology two years later from Fisk University in Nashville.

In her thesis, “The Negro Woman Domestic Worker in Relation to Trade Unionism,” Ms. Jackson “suggested that unionization would improve not only the conditions of toil for domestic workers, but would also assuage some of the unique difficulties of working in a private home, including sexual harassment and violence,” Sara Elizabeth Rzeszutek wrote in her 2009 book “Love and Activism: James and Esther Cooper Jackson and the Black Freedom Movement in the United States, 1914-1968.”

While at Fisk, she met civil rights activist James E. Jackson Jr., and though they were seeing other people, they went on a date to a movie. She wrote that they continued their courtship through the mail after he left Nashville. They married in 1941, after he encouraged her to join with his activism in Alabama.

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About a decade into their marriage, Mr. Jackson went underground for a few years when he was indicted under the Smith Act and accused of teaching classes about violent revolution. The conviction of Mr. Jackson, who was an American Communist Party official, was overturned in the late 1950s when a Supreme Court ruling drew a line between actually advocating incitement and only teaching it as a concept.

“I want to express a deep private appreciation — of love and esteem — for my wife Esther, who has been so important a part of all of my endeavors during the past third of a century,” Mr. Jackson, who died in 2007, said during his 60th birthday celebration in New York in 1964. “And if some of those efforts have proven meaningful and of value, no small credit is due to Esther for her comradeship and help, patience, and endurance.”

The couple had lived in Michigan before moving to Brooklyn, their longtime home.

In recognition of Ms. Jackson’s longtime work as managing editor of Freedomways, the New York Association of Black Journalists honored her with a lifetime achievement award, according to her biography on The History Makers website. She also was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University.

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At Sherrill House, “she had an open door policy, so scholars across the New England area would come in and just sit with Esther,” Burnham said.

As a key player in the civil rights movement, Burnham said, Ms. Jackson “was tremendously generous with her time, with very mature and accomplished scholars as well as with students — undergraduate and graduate students — so she was still teaching across her life.”

Ms. Jackson leaves her two daughters, Kathryn of Cambridge and Harriet Jackson Scarupa of Silver Spring, Md.; a grandson; and two great-grandchildren.

A gathering to celebrate her life will be announced.

“I am certain that I inherited Esther’s commitment and her determination to struggle for a better world,” Davis wrote in her e-mail.

“Esther’s name should be known by all who believe in justice, equality, and freedom, for there is no one whose life more consistently illuminates the meaning of collective struggles for liberation than Esther Cooper Jackson,” Davis said. “I myself have known her for my entire life, and in so many ways I have always tried to model my own life and commitments after Esther’s. I count myself as one of the many who have attempted to carry on the struggles Esther Jackson pioneered. We are who we are because of her intellect, her courage, and her determination.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.