Allen Cooper began his work as an activist in 1959, just after he left the U.S. Navy. Born and raised in Albuquerque, he says the Navy opened his eyes. He learned about racism and sexism and began to rethink his original intention to become an Episcopal priest.
“It was like I woke up,” he said. “My head began working for itself and I started seeing things and feeling things.
He came back to Albuquerque after he was released from the service and became part of sit-in demonstrations against world war at the old Woolworth building at 4th and Central. Cooper also attended the University of New Mexico – until he was expelled after a protest against the war in Vietnam.
“They threw me out because I was trying to stop the war," Cooper said. "We disrupted basketball games at The Pit and I thought we were going to get murdered.”
Cooper took his passion to Mississippi where he became a freedom rider. His first boss was John Lewis, who is now a congressman from Georgia. Those were dark days for Cooper who worked with dozens of others to try to register black voters. He suffered a skull fracture and lost his right kidney at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, but stayed in Mississippi for three years.
As he moved around, he began collecting posters from the protest actions. The Center for Southwest Research now has more than 100 of the posters. They have been digitized and are available online as the Allen Cooper papers. Most are in English, although some are in Spanish. The original posters are available for review at the Anderson Reading Room.
There have been many causes. Cooper says he lost a number of friends at Wounded Knee during protest actions. He spent time supporting civil rights campaigns in Venezuela, Cuba and Central America as well. He also worked as a high school teacher.
“I’ve had a life of trying to change things, confronting war and racism and sexism," Cooper said. "One of my students – I was a high school teacher for about 24 years and one of my students said one day, ‘Mr. Cooper, why did you do all this stuff, you know? What’s in it for you? You weren’t making any money or anything.’ I said I know, but I enjoyed being around people that were building community and supporting each other and developing consciousness. And so that’s been my lifelong job to work to develop consciousness. Consciousness is like the linchpin of the whole thing.”
Cooper is now 75 years old. He is still involved and is writing a memoir of his life as an activist. He doesn’t know yet how he will be able to get it published but he is hopeful. He is also still on the front lines, seeking change.
His latest cause? Fighting fracking in San Miguel County.