Marvel Cooke: An African-American Woman Journalist Who Agitated for Racial Reform
Frederick Douglass, the most important African-American leader of the nineteenth century, insisted that there was only one way for members of his race to secure their rights as human beings. He stated, directly and simply: "Agitation is the life blood of all Reforms."(2)
During the first half of this century, Marvel Cooke broke through the double barriers of racism and sexism to agitate for reform. And she should be recognized, during her own lifetime, as a force in social change and political protest.
That Cooke became the first African-American woman in this country's history to report fulltime for a mainstream newspaper is enough to assure her a place in journalism history,(3) even though that recognition has not yet been granted to her.(4) Cooke, who still lives in Harlem, was part of the Harlem Renaissance(5) and knew and worked with such prominent Black leaders as W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and Adam Clayton Powell. But Cooke did not sit passively in the shadows of these great men. Instead, she crusaded, through journalism, for a better way of life for members of her race. Cooke said: "Handling words and thoughts, handling ideas and putting them into words was, to me, very exciting. It came naturally to me. It was very easy for me. So I liked it. I liked the field."(6)
Between 1926 and 1952, Cooke worked for four publications in New York City. The Crisis was a national monthly magazine that showcased the best in African-American writing. The Amsterdam News was, and still is, a leading Black newspaper. The People's Voice was a forum Adam Clayton Powell created to advocate civil rights. The Daily Compass was a liberal, white-owned daily that covered the New York metropolitan area.
This article, by examining Cooke's work for these four publications while also describing her personal life and motivations, traces four activist themes to which she was committed. First, Cooke's unique reporting style exposed injustice, thereby expanding how the newspapers for which she worked covered the fight for civil rights. In addition, Cooke emphasized the central role that the arts play in the African-American culture and sought to foster the arts as a means of developing a national Black identity and pride. What is more, Cooke recognized that the growing American labor movement could make positive impact on the struggle for civil rights. An early advocate of the American Newspaper Guild, Cooke helped establish a local bargaining unit at the Amsterdam News and then helped lead a strike there, creating the country's first labor action by Black employees against a Black-owned business. Finally, the most controversial theme in Cooke's life has been her half-century association with the Communist Party. Convinced that the communist philosophy could lead African-Americans toward a better way of life, she joined the party, subsequently coming under the attack of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.
While pursuing the various themes that defined her life and career, Marvel Cooke received unwavering finanacial and emotional support from her husband. She married Cecil Cooke in 1929, soon after he had received a master's degree from Columbia University. He later worked for the New York City Recreation Department, advancing to the position of recreation director for the Bronx. He died in 1978.(7) Injuries Marvel Cooke suffered during an automobile accident prevented her from bearing children.(8)
Marvel Jackson was born April 4, 1903, in Mankato, Minnesota. The Jackson family was securely in the upper middle class. Madison Jackson, the son of an Ohio farmer, earned a law degree from Ohio State University and became the first Black member of the South Dakota bar, but he could not build a law practice because white citizens refused to hire a Black attorney.(9) Amy Wood Jackson worked as a cook and cooking teacher on an Indian reservation in South Dakota until she became so distressed by the mistreatment of the native Americans that she left the job. …