Outside the small circle of the United States Communist party, the civil rights activist James Jackson, who has died aged 92, may best be known as one of several communists jailed for conspiracy at the height of the McCarthyite witchhunts, only to have their convictions overturned by the US supreme court several years later.
Jackson was arrested in 1951, along with 20 others, for teaching classes on violent revolution. This was regarded as an offence under the Smith Act, a statute put forward in 1940 by the anti-labour and anti-civil rights southern congressman Howard Smith, which made advocating the overthrow of the US government a crime. Jackson and five other defendants went into hiding for five years – “roaming the country like during the underground railroad,” as his wife Esther told the New York Times – but in 1956 he surrendered, was convicted and jailed for two years.
A year later the supreme court ruled on Yates v United States, arguing that the Smith Act “requires more than the teaching and advocacy of an abstract doctrine that the government should be overthrown by force and violence”. The appeals court then overturned the convictions of Jackson and his colleagues, ruling that the US government had failed to prove that the defendants had urged people to “do something” rather than “believe in something”. Similar rulings effectively rendered the Smith Act unconstitutional, though it remains on the US statute books to this day.
Jackson, who lived in Brooklyn, New York, had long been a major figure in the American Communist party, having edited its newspaper and been both international affairs secretary and national educational director. He met Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, Mikhail Gorbachev, Che Guevara and Mao Zedong.
He was born in Richmond, Virginia, to what – at that time, in that place – was the black middle-class: his father was a pharmacist. Schooled in the injustices of the upper south, he was the first black youth in Richmond, once the Confederate capital, to earn the rank of eagle scout. When the time came for the state governor to hand out the awards, he pinned them on the chests of the white scouts, “until he got to me”, recalled Jackson in 1997. “And then he stepped back and just grunted.” The governor threw the award to him, leaving Jackson to pin it on himself, and then salute.
Jackson, who took a degree in chemistry at Virginia Union University, Richmond, and then studied pharmacy at Howard University, in Washington DC, had a long involvement in anti-racist struggles before he joined the Communist party. At 23 he led Richmond tobacco workers, mainly black women, in a series of strikes, which ended with them being unionised. A few years later he ventured down to Birmingham, Alabama, where he worked with the Southern Negro Youth Congress to organise a voter-registration drive.
In the late 1930s, he was part of a team contributing research to An American Dilemma, the groundbreaking 1944 study by Gunnar Myrdal, which raised consciousness about race relations in America. During the project Jackson met a fellow researcher Esther Cooper, of Fisk University, Nashville, and they married in 1941. After returning from the second world war, during which he served in an all-black engineering unit, led by white officers, helping to build the Burma Road, he joined the Communist party in 1947, and was soon working full-time.
Critics within the party, like Harry Heywood, claimed that Jackson undermined its credibility among African- Americans by being too wedded to the Moscow line. On issues of race equality, Jackson argued against black nationalism and in support of the party backing a more mainstream civil rights position.
The press was often interested in him. In the 1950s, cold-war hysteria in America would gain legislative and quasi-judicial power in the shape of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and the red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy’s permanent subcommittee on investigations. This period of witchhunts overlapped with the rise of the civil rights movement, rendering just about any black activist vulnerable, whether they were a communist or not.
While Jackson served as CPUSA international affairs secretary, during the height of the bombing of Hanoi, he traveled to North Vietnam and interviewed Ho Chi Minh. One of his prized possessions was a photograph of himself with the great Vietnamese leader. Jackson also played an important role in assisting the South African Communist Party and the African National Congress in the struggle against apartheid, helping build solidarity activities in the U.S.
In the early 1990s Jackson withdrew from the party, outliving the international movement he had done so much to build. Esther survives him, as do daughters Harriet and Kathryn, a grandchild and two great grandchildren.*
* James Edward Jackson, civil rights activist, born November 29 1914; died September 1 2007**
** This article is an amalgam of the Obituaries of James Jackson that appeared in the Guardian and on the web site of the CPUSA.