Marvel Cooke

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Marvel Cooke

Marvel Cooke (1901-2000) a former New York journalist who also was a noted labor and political and civil rights activist, died of leukemia Nov. 29 2000 in a hospital in New York.

Marvel Cooke was the aunt of Roger Wilkins.

Mrs. Cooke's husband, Cecil Cooke, an athlete and teacher whom she married in 1929, died in 1978, four years after retiring from the New York City recreation department.

Survivors include a sister, Helen Cooke Wilkins Claytor, a former national president of the YWCA, who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.[1]

Early life

Marvel Cooke was born in Mankato, Minn., and grew up in Minneapolis. Her father, Madison Jackson, son of a free Black farmer in Ohio, was an Ohio State University law school graduate who was forced to make his living as a Pullman sleeping-car porter. Her mother, Amy Wood Jackson was a former teacher. She later described her parents as a "Eugene Debs socialist" and said that her mother was politically supportive of her later in life.[2] Mrs. Cooke graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1925.

After college, she went to Harlem and caught the "Harlem Renaissance".[3]


Marvel Cooke's journalistic experience, even though it ended in the early fifties, was both varied and unique. She began her career working for W.E.B. DuBois, editor of the Crisis, the NAACP publication. She went from the Crisis to the Amsterdam News. At the Amsterdam News, she was secretary to the women's editor, the editor-in-chief of a short-lived feature syndicate and a general assignment reporter. While at the Amsterdam News, Cooke helped organize the first Newspaper Guild unit at a black-owned newspaper. Later, in 1935, she was in the thick of the successful eleven-week Guild strike against the News. After leaving the Amsterdam News, she became assistant managing editor at the People's Voice, a Harlem-based newspaper owned by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. . She ended her journalism career as a reporter and feature writer at the Compass, a short-lived white-owned New York City daily newspaper. At the Compass, Cooke was the only black and the only woman reporter.[4]

Radical friends

Cooke wrote and became friends and associates with such figures as the poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, singer-actor Paul Robeson, artist Elizabeth Catlett and novelist Richard Wright. At one time, she was engaged to marry Roy Wilkins; he went on to become executive secretary of the NAACP.[5]

Communist Party

Mrs. Cooke told an interviewer in 1989 that one reason she and Wilkins fell out was that he was politically more conservative than she. Mrs. Cooke, while walking a Newspaper Guild picket line in the 1930s, joined the Communist Party USA. She told the interviewer that the professed goals of American Communists, including larger government welfare programs and racial equality, were her goals.[6]

In one period Cooke and fellow civil rights activist Ella J. 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.[7]

Many American Communists were to abandon the party in the 1930s, with the trumped-up show trials in Stalin's Soviet Union, in the 1940s after the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, and in the 1950s after the Hungarian uprisings. But Mrs. Cooke, remained a member of the party—though never held party office.

As Cooke told the story, Communist leader Benjamin Davis, then editor of The Liberator and later a New York City Council member, 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.[8]

Cooke campaigned for Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace in 1948 and traveled behind the Iron Curtain to cultural gatherings and as a "courier for associates who were unable to secure their passports."

In the 1950s, Cooke testified in the early days of the Army-McCarthy hearings chaired by Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.) Mrs. Cooke was asked to identify a former Army civilian clerk as having worked with her on the People's Voice, a black New York publication, in the 1940s.

Mrs. Cooke refused to cooperate with the committee and refused to confirm or deny her membership in the Communist Party USA[9]

"Spy" accusation

In the 1950s, Cooke became New York director of the Council of Arts, Sciences and Professions.

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?'[10]

Family connection

Roger Wilkins, the George Mason University professor who is a former journalist and U.S. assistant attorney general, told a Post reporter in 1993 that Mrs. Cooke was obviously well remembered by some Russians. He recalled that he was receiving a decidedly frosty treatment from a Russian cultural official when the official learned he was a nephew of Marvel Cooke. Wilkins recalled, "He said, ‘You're Marvel Cooke's nephew?’" Wilkins said "he perked right up. He thought, ‘This guy is somebody, or at least related to somebody.’"

Wilkins's mother, Helen Cooke, a sister of Marvel Cooke, had married Earl Wilkins, Roy's younger brother.[11]

Later activism

After leaving the Compass in the early fifties, Cooke devoted herself to political activism. She was national legal defense secretary of the Angela Davis Defense Committee in the late sixties and early seventies. In 1990 she was national vice chairman of the American-Soviet Friendship Committee.[12]

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."[13]

We Will Make Peace Prevail!

On March 28, 1982 the New World Review organized a gala luncheon "We Will Make Peace Prevail! Disarmament Over Confrontation, Life Over Death", at the Grand Ballroom, Hotel Roosevelt, New York City. Virtually all participants were identified as Communist Party USA.

Marvel Cooke was listed on the Committee of Sponsors.[14]

National Council of American-Soviet Friendship

National Council of American-Soviet Friendship Letterhead Feb. 26, 1982;

Letterhead printed in "Soviet Active Measures, Hearings before the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, House of Representatives, 97th Congress, 2nd Session, July 13, 14, 1982, p. 295.

Robeson event sponsors

On May 31 1998 the Peoples Weekly World held a Paul Robeson birth centennial celebration in New York, at the Henry Winston Auditorium.

Speakers included Gus Hall, chairman of the Communist Party USA and Roger Green of the NY State Assembly.

Sponsors of the event included poet Amina Baraka, Grace T. Bassett, actress Vinie Burrows, former Peoples Voice editor Marvel Cooke, Councilmember Tom Duane, Attorney Rob Ellis, Assemblymember Roger Green, Gus Hall, Councilmember Bill Perkins, labor unionist Bobbie Rabinowitz, actor John Randolph, Pete Robinson, poet Sonia Sanchez, singer Pete Seeger, labor unionist Chris Silvera, PWW editor Tim Wheeler, New York City Coalition of Black Trade Unionists president Jim Webb and labor unionist Ira Williams.[15]