Longtime labor activist Liz Jackson dies at 102

Longtime UAW activist Liz Jackson died earlier this month. Pictured here is UAW worker Simon Dandu picketing at GM headquarters, Oct. 14, 2019 | Ken Coleman

Described as a fighter with no quit in her, Elizabeth Jackson was a force in Detroit’s labor, political and civil rights communities for many decades. She died on March 2 in Columbia, S.C.

She was 102 years old. Her death was not COVID-19-related, according to her niece, Judy Battiste. 

Liz Jackson | Luther Battiste photo

“I am one of the many who called her ‘Mama Liz,’” said UAW President Rory Gamble. “She was a true leader and someone who readily shared her knowledge with everyone around her. She believed in empowerment and she had a huge vision that encompassed the entire community — not just what labor needed. Not just what Detroit needed, but what would bring all of us together everywhere.”

Born on Jan. 18, 1918, in Auburn, Ala., Jackson was the sixth child of Phillip and Annie Lee Drake Foster. After spending her childhood in Auburn and later Washington, D.C., Jackson moved to Detroit during the early 1940s and was hired into the Aluminum Foundry at the Ford Motor Co. Rouge Plant. Liz, as she was known to many, became an active member of Local 600, toiling for the next 19 years at the Dearborn Assembly Plant.

In 1957, Jackson became a founding member and officer of the Trade Union Leadership Council (TULC), a civil rights organization committed to planning campaigns, fighting wrongs and pushing for progress, for many years. In 1966, Jackson made history, becoming the first African-American woman to serve as an UAW International representative. Three years later, Jackson became the first woman to sit on the national negotiation team during UAW and Ford contract talks.

Jackson retired in 1983, but remained active with the TULC and was a fixture at its annual fish fry fundraiser held on Good Friday. 

In 1995, then-U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Detroit) paid honor to the TULC during a Nov. 30 Capitol Hill session: “The bold efforts of the Trade Union Leadership Council have enabled  thousands of African-American men and women to progress through the ranks of both unions and management,” Conyers said at the time.

Conyers lauded for leadership centered on ‘jobs, justice, peace’

In 2006, the Dearborn Diversified Manufacturing Plant recognized Jackson’s legacy and pointed out that she had “open[ed] doors for many African-American women and women in general by standing strong for what she believed in.” 

Five years later, Jackson was recognized by Local 600 “in honor of her lifetime commitment toward the fight for social and economic justice in the community and her tremendous contribution to working families everywhere.” 

She was an appointed member of the Detroit Fire Commission and was an active member of the Detroit Branch NAACP and Michigan Democratic Party. She served as Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus vice president and was a delegate to every Democratic National Convention and backed each nominee from John F. Kennedy in 1960 to Barack Obama in 2012. 

In 2013, then-U.S. Rep. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) recognized Jackson for her lifelong achievements and contributions to the labor movement.

“Her dedication to the greater Detroit region and her brothers and sisters in organized labor have undoubtedly been an inspiration for many that have sought to serve their communities,” Peters said. “Liz has made such a profound impact on the community she calls home and I wish her continued success in all of her future endeavors.”

Longtime UAW President Owen Bieber, who fought apartheid, dies at age 90

Jackson moved to South Carolina in 2014 to live with family. She was preceded in death by her husband, A. W. Jackson; parents Philip Foster and Annie Lee Drake Foster; brothers, Leroy, Willie and Philip Foster; sisters, Mattie Lou Foster Whitaker, Annie Otelia Foster, Margaret Foster Spotswood, Lucille Foster Hutchings and Mary Drake Foster. She is survived by her sister, Elsie Foster Mitchell of Columbia, S.C; niece, Judy Mitchell (Luther) Battiste of Columbia, S.C; nephew, Daniel Webster (Wendy) Mitchell of Auburn, Ala. and many others.

Due to COVID-19 health concerns, Jackson’s family said that a public service will not be held. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Detroit Branch NAACP, and the Walter Reuther Library at Wayne State University. 

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman reports on Southeast Michigan, education, civil rights and voting rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.