FBI Harassment of Black Families

Claudia Jones (2nd row, 1st from left) with fellow Smith Act defendents before U.S. Federal Court building, 1953 (Courtesy of the Schomburg Center)

American anticommunism has always been an anti-democratic movement that seeks to silence radical voices. At its core, anti-communism has been deployed to quell radical left-wing dissent, prevent social justice goals, and construct progressivism as a threat to individual freedom. The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover’s leadership took it upon itself to police progressive activists and in so doing undermined the liberty of those with radical beliefs. But this policing did not stop with communists; their families, friends, and children were also put under surveillance and sometimes harassed in the process. James and Esther Jackson, prominent communists and activists, were surveilled by the Bureau for years. In 1951, James Jackson was one of many Party leaders that was arrested under the Smith Act. After his indictment, Jackson went into the underground; meanwhile the FBI increased its surveillance of Esther as well as the Jackson’s two daughters. The Bureau’s monitoring and harassment of the Jackson children reveal the true undemocratic nature of the Bureau. The FBI is an organization that has undergone multiple attempts at reform, only to remain fixated on the harassment of radical Black activists.

James was an active student at Virginia Union University and helped found and lead the Cooperative Independent Movement on campus, a group that worked with white students at Virginia University. In this work he met communists and became attracted to Marxism, he joined the Communist Party (CPUSA) in 1931. Esther joined later in 1936, becoming part of what Erik McDuffie has described as a second generation of Black women who joined the Party and helped it understand Black women’s triple oppression. In 1937, James was part of the founding of the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC), an organization devoted to expanding work in the South focused on interracial solidarity and economic justice. In 1938, James took a leave from the SNYC to work on Gunnar Myrdal’s research that eventually became An American Dilemma. While doing research in Tennessee he went to Fisk University where he met sociology graduate student Esther Cooper. Esther had attended Oberlin where she came across activists involved in the Spanish Civil War; she also became inspired by the Spanish communist Dolores Ibarruri. Sara Rzeszutek argues that it was here that Cooper began to depart from her mother’s pacifism as she came to understand violence as an anti-fascist tool. 

Esther would eventually join James in the SNYC and the two married in 1941. They relocated to Birmingham, Alabama where the SNYC was headquartered and over the next several years would hold multiple positions in the organization. James joined the military in 1943 and was deployed to the China-Burma-India theater; he was released from service in 1946. That same year he resigned from SNYC to become the State Chairman of the CPUSA in Louisiana. As Esther would later explain it, this position was short-lived. At a 29th anniversary celebration of the Soviet revolution James gave a speech and in the middle of it was interrupted by a mob led by police. He was arrested and charged with provoking the “patriots” in the audience. His home in New Orleans was surrounded and attacked and he was arrested. All charges were later dropped. In 1947, the Jackson family, with their first daughter Harriet moved to Detroit. That year their second daughter Kathryn was born. In 1949, James was appointed the CPUSA’s Southern Regional Director and in 1950 he was appointed to the National Committee. In 1951, the family moved to New York City. Later that year James was indicted under the Smith Act.

In June, James went into the underground leaving Esther and the two girls behind. In September of that year the Family Committee of the Smith Act Victims (FCSAV) run by Peggy Dennis whose husband had been arrested, was founded to help the families of those indicted under the Smith Act. That help came in the form of financial aid to visit those in prison, funds to help with lost income and childcare, emotional assistance and solidarity, and drawing attention to the needs of the families. In addition, the organization drew attention to the FBI surveillance and harassment of the spouses and children of the indicted. In a FCSAV pamphlet, the organization’s work included holding a Christmas party for the 200 children “victimized by the Smith Act” and throwing a birthday party for 5-year-old Larry Winston, whose father Henry Winston went into the underground.1

Esther Jackson served on the organization’s executive committee and she and her daughters would also need assistance from the group. James’s arrest was part of a new round of arrests and trials that included over 100 communists, greatly increasing the committee’s work. The decision for some of the leaders to go underground including James was controversial and many high-ranking women like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Dennis did not support it; primarily because it created undue hardship for those left behind. In the case of the Jackson’s, it increased FBI harassment and surveillance as the agency was actively trying to locate her husband. In the process, the Bureau began approaching the children, their schools, and interfered in their daily lives. This also meant that the FBI and its agents were greatly expanding their own power and engaging in questionable extralegal behavior that undermined the rights of those under surveillance.

In 1953, Esther published the pamphlet This is My Husband. The pamphlet was primarily a biography of James, but it was also an indictment of the anti-communist state that harassed and imprisoned people for their political beliefs. The FCSAV distributed it in its fundraising campaign and noted in its campaigns that the Jackson family had been harassed under the “thin guise” of searching for James. What the Jackson’s endured could only mildly be described as “harassment”; in a letter to the New York Daily Age, Esther described how her daughter Kathy, only 4 at the time, was being dropped from her daycare center. Having Kathy in the school allowed for Esther to work and make up for her husband’s lost income; she argued that removing her from that care was a clear “attempt to starve the family” and deny Kathy a normal life. She appealed “especially” to other parents to rally behind her and the children and oppose the anticommunist harassment that was based solely on political beliefs. The FCSAV “protested and publicized” the New York State Welfare Department’s attempt to expel Kathy, and “exposed the FBI pressure” behind the move. Letters were written to the authorities and the story circulated widely in the Black press; the department eventually relented and allowed Kathy to stay.2

FBI agents were ubiquitous in the family’s Brooklyn neighborhood with their “dark trench coats and fedoras.” The agents would approach the children on the street and ask for information on James’s whereabouts, which neither Esther nor the children knew. This behavior scared Kathy who did not want her mother to leave her side and asked if the agents could imprison children. One day Kathy screamed with terror when an agent approached her, she was so frightened Esther had to stay with her at school that day. But their older daughter Harriet would boldly point the agents out to her friends. The Baltimore Afro-American featured a story about the harassment describing how agents would follow Harriet to the store, it had agents sitting behind them in movie theaters and followed the girls to school, and at the end of every day, agents would be outside their home. James’s elderly parents were also harassed, and Mrs. Jackson was asked how she would contact her son if her elderly husband dropped dead.

The family spent five years apart and the FBI spent $1 million per year trailing the Smith Act families. James surrendered himself on December 2, 1955 at the New York City federal courthouse. A US Attorney called him one of the most dangerous “communist conspirators” in the country. At his trial his defense attorneys tried to argue that belief in communism was not violent and not an attempt to undermine the US government; James was nevertheless found guilty. He was sentenced to two years and released on bail during the appeals process. His conviction would be reversed in 1957 when the Supreme Court ruled in Yates that the communist’s free speech rights were violated. After spending millions of dollars in surveillance and trials, the government had to reverse course when its own behavior was found unconstitutional. But the Cold War harassment of leftists left behind a legacy of government misbehavior that went unchallenged by an indifferent citizenry. That legacy continues today with the undue attention of federal, state, and local authorities on Black freedom activists while white terrorists publicly plan attacks on federal buildings, threaten to kill lawmakers and to overturn an election all on social media and still take authorities by surprise.

  1. Families of the Smith Act Victims, “The People Take Care of Their Own,” 1952, 2.
  2. Ibid.
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Denise Lynn

Dr. Denise Lynn is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Southern Indiana. Her research centers on women in the American Communist Party during the Popular Front. Follow her on Twitter @DeniseLynn13.

Comments on “FBI Harassment of Black Families

  • The FBI harassed not only CP members but progressives generally.
    Thus, the office where Sarah E. Wright, poet and novelist, worked, was
    visited by FBI agents who informed her boss that she was “an admirer
    of Paul Robeson.”

    Reply
  • Not only Communist families. Anyone with a progressive viewpoint was subject to harassment. The FBI went to the novelist Sarah E. Wright’s office to persuade her
    boss to fire her because she admired Paul Robeson.

    Reply

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