The extraordinary life of Marvel Cooke

Women’s History Month fittingly opens with International Women’s Day, March 8.

On March 8, 1908, 15,000 women workers marched through New York’s Lower East Side demanding shorter hours, better pay, a needle trades union, and the right to vote. Their bold action was noted two years later at an International Conference of Working Women, where German socialist Clara Zetkin proposed commemorating it on March 8 every year. That’s how International Women’s Day got started.

Below is a brief biography of an extraordinary woman who broke many barriers, Marvel Cooke, offered here as a celebration of International Women’s Day.

At the intersection of African American History and Women’s History months is a long list of Black women who have made history as civil rights, labor and peace activists, educators, scientists, elected officials, physicians, astronauts, artists and much more.

Prominent among them, and combining several of those roles, is the journalist and activist Marvel Cooke. In her long life (1903-2000), Cooke participated in such crucial and often interrelated developments as the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, the intense upsurge of labor organizing in the 1930s and decades of work for world peace, civil rights and civil liberties.

Along the way she, too, achieved ‘firsts’ first woman journalist at the Amsterdam News, participant in organizing New York City’s first Newspaper Guild chapter, first African American or woman reporter at the white-owned daily Compass.

In fact, Marvel Cooke’s life began with a ‘first’ the first African-American baby born in Mankato, Minn. Her father, Madison Jackson, son of a free Black farmer in Ohio, had graduated in law from Ohio State University. But in the turn-of-the-century Midwest, he could not find work in his profession, and became a Pullman porter. Her mother, Amy Wood Jackson, had served as a cook and teacher on a Native American reservation before her marriage. The family later moved to Minneapolis.

During those years the foundations were laid for Cooke’s later activism. As a member of the first African American family to move into the upper middle class Prospect Park neighborhood near the University of Minnesota campus, Cooke experienced initial hostile reactions from neighbors. (They were later won over by her father’s astute decision to create an irresistible children’s playground in their yard for Marvel and her two sisters).

Cooke characterized her parents as ‘Eugene Debs socialists. She credited her father, in particular, with helping her to develop many of the ideas that underlay her activism. Late in life, interviewed by Kathleen Currie for the Washington Press Club Foundation’s Women in Journalism series, she recounted her father’s thoughts about voting for Debs as he ran for president from a prison cell. Cooke said her father told her, ‘I’m voting for him as a protest against the way things are going in this country. The bigger protest vote we can get in this country, whoever goes in will listen to this great group of people out here that don’t agree.’

Though her mother was less active politically, she was equally supportive of Cooke’s activities; Cooke told how much later, during a visit to New York City, Amy Jackson joined a picket line protesting injustices faced by tenants in the apartment building where Cooke’s younger sister lived.

Cooke’s husband, Cecil Cooke, a former college star athlete and a longtime member of the New York City Recreation Department staff, also consistently supported his wife’s activities.

Cooke’s journalistic career began when, on invitation of legendary civil rights leader Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois – who had dated her mother – she went to work at the Crisis, the magazine Du Bois had founded in 1910.

Arriving in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, over the years Cooke became friends with such cultural luminaries as authors Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Richard Wright, artist Elizabeth Catlett and legendary actor, singer, civil rights and peace leader Paul Robeson.

After Du Bois left the Crisis, Cooke joined the staff of the Amsterdam News, first as secretary to the women’s editor, and later as the paper’s first female reporter. It was during this period that she joined the Newspaper Guild’s organizing drive at the paper, walking picket lines and being jailed at least once during the paper’s 11-week lockout of its workers.

It was also at this time that she joined the Communist Party. As Cooke told the story, Communist leader Benjamin Davis, then editor of The Liberator and later a New York City Councilmember, was participating in the workers’ picket line one day. ‘Why aren’t you a member of the Communist Party?’ he asked her. Cooke replied, ‘Because no one ever asked me.’ And she joined on the spot, remaining a member the rest of her life.

During this period Cooke and fellow civil rights activist Ella Josephine Baker collaborated on an essay for the Crisis, revealing the desperate plight of African American women who gathered on street corners to seek hourly domestic work. As ‘The Bronx Slave Market’ told their story, ‘Rain or shine, cold or hot, you will find them there Negro women, old and young sometimes bedraggled, sometimes neatly dressed but with the invariable paper bundle, waiting expectantly for Bronx housewives to buy their strength and energy for an hour, two hours, or even for a day at the munificent sum of fifteen, twenty, twenty-five or if luck be with them, thirty cents an hour.’

The two journalists told how the Great Depression had forced the women to seek such a livelihood, and how they were often cheated out of their meager earnings.

In 1950, while working for the progressive daily newspaper, the Compass, Cooke returned to the subject, going undercover as a domestic worker to gather material for a five-part expose. ‘Hundreds of years of history weighed on me,’ she wrote then. ‘I was the slave traded for two truck horses on a Memphis street corner in 1849. I was the slave trading my brawn for a pittance on a Bronx street corner in 1949. As I stood there waiting to be bought, I lived through a century of indignity.’

In the early 1950s Cooke served as New York director for the Council of Arts, Sciences and Professions, a progressive organization of workers in the arts. During that time, Cooke participated in an international peace conference in the German Democratic Republic, substituting for Paul Robeson, whose passport had been lifted during the post-World War II anti-communist witchhunts. ‘Up to that point in my life,’ Cooke later said in an interview, ‘it was the most exciting thing I had ever done.’

On the last day of the conference, Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich singled her out for special attention as the only American to attend the conference, presenting her with gifts for herself and for Robeson.

Not long after her return home, two FBI agents appeared at her door, demanding that she, too, surrender her passport. Though she ultimately yielded the document, she recalled asking them, ‘Didn’t your parents have anything better to do with their money than to send you through college to become spies?’

Later, as she appeared before a Congressional witchhunt hearing, Cooke’s response to a question about her birthplace ‘I was borne in Minnesota, across the St. Croix River from where Sen. McCarthy comes, but we’re not all the same out that way’ brought the house down. Cooke said that ended the questioning.

In the early 1970s Cooke played a leading part in organizing the broad nationwide movement to defend African American educator and activist Angela Davis, who was accused of murder and kidnapping.

After Davis was acquitted, Cooke served for many years as national vice-chair of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, which emphasized building person-to-person ties with individuals and organizations in the USSR as an avenue to world peace. During that time she dedicated substantial volunteer time to the work of the magazine New World Review, which reported on developments in the socialist countries and national liberation movements.

Talking with interviewer Kathleen Currie in 1989, Cooke summed up her life: ‘I think I’ve been inordinately lucky … I wouldn’t have wanted to be born in any other period. I would have wanted to have produced more, have done more myself, but I got so involved in unions and things of that sort, that I didn’t do the creative writing that I thought I was going to do when I was young.’

Marilyn Bechtel is California correspondent for the People’s Weekly World. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, she worked with Marvel Cooke at the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship and at the magazine New World Review.

Special thank you to Michael Nash, Erika Gottfried and Meredith Davidson of The Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives for their assistance in these historical photos and the photos from last week’s article on Eddie Carthan.

Tamiment Library is located on the campus of New York University, Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 10th Floor, 70 Washington Square South (West 4th btwn LaGuardia and Greene Streets), New York City. The library is host to the photo collections from The Daily Worker and The Communist Party, USA. The collections at the Tamiment are considered to be among the best sources of information in the U.S. on the history of radical politics.

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