[Marxism] Jack O’Dell, King Aide Fired Over Communist Past, Dies at 96
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Wed Nov 20 09:43:49 MST 2019
NY Times, Nov. 19, 2019
Jack O’Dell, King Aide Fired Over Communist Past, Dies at 96
By Richard Sandomir
By mid-1963, Jack O’Dell had been working for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther
King Jr. at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for about 18
months, raising funds and helping to register voters.
He brought a diverse résumé to the job, having worked as a merchant
seaman, union activist and insurance salesman. But he had also been a
member of the Communist Party, which alarmed President John F. Kennedy
and the director of the F.B.I., J. Edgar Hoover.
So when civil rights groups gathered at the White House on June 22,
1963, two months before the March on Washington, Kennedy pulled King
aside in the Rose Garden. The president told King that he had to fire
Mr. O’Dell and Stanley Levison, a white businessman and King aide, for
ties to the party, according to multiple historical accounts. Mr.
Levison was under F.B.I. surveillance at the time.
“They’re Communists,” Kennedy was said to have remarked.
The president warned King that holding on to such friends could imperil
his administration’s alliance with King, who was president of the
S.C.L.C., an umbrella civil rights group that was formed in 1957.
Kennedy’s words tested King’s loyalty to men who had served him well.
“Dr. King would have kept Jack O’Dell forever; he didn’t believe in
demonizing anyone,” Taylor Branch, the author of the Pulitzer
Prize-winning “Parting the Waters” (1988), the first of a three-volume
history of the civil rights era, said in a phone interview. “But it was
a demand from the Kennedy administration.”
King dismissed Mr. O’Dell, writing in a July 3 letter to him that “any
allusion to the left brings forth an emotional response which would seem
to indicate that S.C.L.C. and the Southern Freedom Movement are
He added, “In these critical times, we cannot afford to risk any such
If Mr. O’Dell’s role in the civil rights movement was relatively small,
he nevertheless stood out for occupying a fraught point in history where
the civil rights movement intersected with the other great preoccupation
of the era — the Cold War struggle against Communism — giving rise to
unfounded suspicions in some quarters that the movement was yet another
front for political subversion.
Mr. O’Dell was prepared to leave the movement, though reluctantly,
rather than be a distraction to it. In an interview in 2015 for an oral
history project at New York University, he recalled telling S.C.L.C.
officials that “the government ain’t doing nothing on your civil rights,
but they’re going to tell you who to hire to fight for civil rights.”
After Mr. O’Dell left King’s orbit — as did Mr. Levison, who was not an
S.C.L.C. employee — he was a writer for Freedomways, a black
intellectual and arts journal; a professor of history and colonialism at
the Antioch Graduate School of Education in Washington; chairman of the
Pacifica Foundation radio station group; and an aide to the Rev. Jesse
Jackson at Mr. Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition and in his presidential
campaigns in 1984 and 1988.
Mr. O’Dell died of a stroke on Oct. 31 in a hospital in Vancouver,
British Columbia, his wife, Jane Power, said. He was 96.
Hunter Pitts O’Dell was born on Aug. 11, 1923, in Detroit. His father,
George, owned a restaurant, and his mother, Emily (Pitts) O’Dell, taught
piano to adults. After his parents divorced, Hunter was raised by his
paternal grandparents, John O’Dell, a janitor in a public library whose
nickname, Jack, Hunter adopted; and Georgianna O’Dell, a homemaker. One
of his great-grandfathers had escaped slavery to join the Union Army.
Mr. O’Dell studied pharmacology for two years in the early 1940s at
Xavier University in New Orleans, where, he said, he first encountered
segregation. “Detroit wasn’t terrific, but you didn’t do anything down
there but get out of white people’s way,” he said of New Orleans in “The
Issue of Mr. O’Dell” (2018), a short documentary film produced and
directed by Rami Katz.
Mr. O’Dell left Xavier to join the merchant marine, where he was
introduced to labor activism through the progressive National Maritime
Union. But after years of sailing the world, he was expelled from the
union — which was being torn apart by an internal ideological struggle —
for being a Communist. He had joined the party in the ’50s while living
in New Orleans.
His education as a radical activist led him to join the National Negro
Youth Congress, a civil rights organization that brought him into
contact with Communists like James Jackson, one of its founders.
Although he said he was not very active as a Communist, he was
subpoenaed to testify before the Senate internal security subcommittee,
whose chairman was James O. Eastland, a Mississippi Democrat notorious
for his resistance to integration.
During his testimony, Mr. O’Dell refused to answer questions about his
political affiliation, in particular whether he had been an organizer
for the Communist Party.
He called Eastland “an enemy of the Negro people, and an avowed one.”
Two years later, when he testified before the House Un-American
Activities Committee, Mr. O’Dell was just as combative. After the
committee’s counsel lectured him on Communism, Mr. O’Dell said, “I am
wondering, do you know as much about the subversive activities in this
country that began with the slavery of the Negro people, and have been
going on for 300 years, including the Jim Crow system that has been in
effect since the end of the Civil War?”
He added, “That is what I am primarily concerned with in terms of
He left the Communist Party in the mid-1950s, he said in interviews,
because he had come to believe that desegregation was more likelier to
come about through the civil rights movement than through a vilified
fringe political party.
Moving to Manhattan, he studied business at New York University and met
civil rights leaders like Bayard Rustin, whom he helped organize a youth
march for integrated schools in Washington in 1959. He began to
volunteer at the S.C.L.C. in 1960 and was hired the next year.
But his Communist past became news in the fall of 1962 when conservative
newspapers — using information that some historians have said was leaked
by the F.B.I. — reported that Mr. O’Dell was a “concealed member of the
national committee of the Communist Party, USA.”
Notable Deaths 2019April 1, 2019
The exposé led Mr. O’Dell to submit his temporary resignation, pending
an inquiry into his past. Although he persuaded King that he no longer
had Communist affiliations, doubts about him persisted within the
At least one historian agrees.
David Garrow, whose book “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr., and
the Southern Christian Leadership Conference” (1986) won the Pulitzer
Prize, wrote in an email that Mr. O’Dell had stayed loyal to the
Communist Party while employed by the S.C.L.C.
“As best I know, even in later life O’Dell was never ever forthcoming or
honest about his own past,” Mr. Garrow said in an email, “including the
fact that he lied to MLK about his CP affiliation.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. O’Dell is survived by a daughter, Judith
Beatty; a son, Tshaka Lafayette; five grandchildren; five
great-grandchildren; a brother, Edwin; and a sister, Carolyn Peart.
Mr. O’Dell’s separation from the S.C.L.C. occurred about seven weeks
before an estimated 250,000 people massed in front of the Lincoln
Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, to protest the inequalities faced by
It was the setting of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Mr. O’Dell later
said that he had been struck by a moment in the speech — before its most
famous passage — when King compared the nation’s failure to fulfill its
promise to black citizens to a “bad check, a check which has come back
marked insufficient funds.”
“You could have left after that,” Mr. O’Dell said in the N.Y.U. interview.
“So it comes out in the world as ‘the Dream Speech,’ but he wasn’t
issuing no dream,” he said. “You’re not dreaming when you know someone
is giving you a bad check.”
Richard Sandomir is an obituaries writer. He previously wrote about
sports media and sports business. He is also the author of several
books, including “The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and
the Making of a Classic.” @RichSandomir
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