Almost a year ago to the day, I featured Jack O’Dell in the classroom column, which was a rare entry since the focus is usually on the deceased. I have resurrected the column since O’Dell joined the ancestors last Thursday, Oct. 31. He was 96.
In the recently published book “Black Power and Palestine: Transnational Countries of Color” by Michael Fischbach there are number of citations related to O’Dell. Now, he may not be as well-known as some of the key figures in Fischbach’s study, but there was a time in the mid’50s and a decade or so thereafter that O’Dell was a prominent activist and a vital member of the circle of advisers surrounding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Even during this important phase of U.S. political and civil rights history, O’Dell chose to move quietly behind the scenes, only occasionally surfacing to give voice to his views and sentiments that were incontrovertibly on the left.
Born Hunter Pitts O’Dell in Detroit on Aug. 11, 1923, Jack—he took his grandfather’s name in the 1930s to honor him—was the son of George Edwin O’Dell, a hotel and restaurant worker and Emily O’Dell, who studied at Howard University where she majored in music and later taught adults to play classical piano. It may have been his grandparents who were significantly involved in raising him and may have given his appreciation and later commitment to the cause of the dispossessed and working class.
Jack left Detroit after high school and attended Xavier University in New Orleans in 1941 where he studied pharmacology. With the outbreak of World War II, he dropped out of college and joined the Merchant Marines. Among the enlistees in his units were a number of leftist oriented marines and it was from them that he began to learn about progressive political movements and their fight against exploitation and racism.
Subsequently, he became active in the National Maritime Union, devoting himself to a variety of civil rights actions, particularly the organizing of hotel and restaurant workers in Florida at the end of World War II. In 1946, when the Southern Negro Youth Congress held its landmark summit in Columbia, South Carolina, Jack was among a coterie of notable freedom fighters, including Paul Robeson, Louis Burnham, James and Esther Jackson, and Herbert Aptheker. They would remain lifelong friends and comrades in the struggle for civil and human rights, and the occasion was even more memorable for the speech W.E.B Du Bois delivered entitled “Behold the Land.”
Practically at the same time the SNYC was active, Jack was also part of the Civil Rights Congress that evolved from several other radical organizations concerned with the fight against racism and oppression. Jack’s affiliation and membership in these organizations and the Communist Party would prove detrimental later on with the onset of McCarthyism and the HUAC. The end result of the investigation into his life and activities put an end to his membership in the Maritime Union. Even so, he continued to be committed to the struggle for civil rights in the South, and this participation would lead inexorably to his role in the emerging Civil Rights Movement and a critical association with Dr. King.
His work in the planning of the youth march in 1959 for integrated schools, not only put Jack in touch with Dr. King but also with A. Philip Randolph and Stanley Levison, another close adviser to Dr. King. Jack’s experience as organizer and leader were instrumental in the successful campaign in Birmingham in 1963. By this time he was a stalwart in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
But Jack’s former associations and membership were soon to present problems for Dr. King and foment a wave of accusations that Dr. King was under the control of former Communist Party members. It grew to such intensity that after the Birmingham campaign Jack felt compelled to resign from SCLC and sever his relationship to Dr. King. This, of course, according to some sources, was not an episode that completely ended his contact with Dr. King, forcing him to keep his consultations free from public exposure.
After divorcing himself officially from the SCLC and Dr. King, Jack found another group of activists, many of whom he knew in the past, who invited him to join them on the board of Freedomways magazine, which was often cited as a front publication for the Communist Party. This platform gave Jack a way to continue his progressive views as an associate editor and writer.
In 1966, Jack was the principal organizer of a testimonial dinner honoring the esteemed writer, scholar and activist Herbert Aptheker, celebrating his 50th birthday, as well as the publication of his 20th book and the second anniversary of American Institute for Marxist Studies. Most of the sponsors and speakers at the event were close friends and associates of Aptheker, and current or former members of the Communist Party.
During the turbulent ’60s, Jack’s activism found expression in the anti-war movement, as a supporter of Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign, and a key adviser in Jesse Jackson’s presidential bid in 1984. Hardly a civil or human rights cause escaped Jack’s witness or involvement as it would be the rest of his eventful life. He was indispensable to Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and Operation Breadbasket, and later as Jackson ventured into Middle East affairs, he provided the research, background, and talking points on the minister’s engagement and decisions.
When the crisis in the Middle East reached a boiling point, Jack was working in close contact with Jackson and helped to organize several trips, including one in 1979 where he escorted Stokely Carmichael and Mrs. Jackson to meet with Yasser Arafat and other leaders of the PLO. These sessions were in keeping with Jack’s peace initiatives that would, for him, morph into his involvement in the World Peace Council.
In 1984, when the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee held a conference at the United Methodist Building in Washington, D.C., Jack was once more among other noted activists and elected officials such Ellen Siegel, James Zogby, John Conyers, and Noam Chomsky who delivered one of the important speeches.
From 1977 to 1997, Jack was chair of the Pacifica Foundation, which supports the Pacifica Radio Network.