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The Jack O’Dell Story

Nikhil Pal Singh, editor, Climbin’ Jacob’s Ladder: The Freedom Movement Writings of Jack O’Dell (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 298 pages, $34.95, hardcover.

Paul Buhle (paul_buhle [at] brown.edu), a contributor to Monthly Review since 1970, is now retired from teaching and produces radical comic books.

Climbin’ Jacob’s Ladder is an important document in political history, even more so in exploring the intimate political and cultural history of the left so often undiscussed, or discussed only among trusted friends. Speaking as a teacher of social movement history (the 1960s in particular), I often advised students that the simplest primary research they could do was right there on the library shelves: the bound volumes of the preeminent African American progressive quarterly journal Freedomways (1961-85).

There hangs a tale, and not a simple one. It is very much the story of Jack O’Dell, if not by any means his whole story, because he became Freedomways associate managing editor early on, wrote a great many of the unsigned editorials, and did much to provide its framework and its connection with the activists and political actions of the time. A former intimate advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but also a member of the Communist Party during the 1950s, O’Dell represented and also exemplified the survival of what we may call the Popular Front, actually surviving repression to fight on another day.

We need some serious back-story here. Nikhil Pal Singh, one of the outstanding younger Marxist thinkers of today’s academy and an active participant in many projects, intellectual and activist alike, is the perfect editor for this volume. His Introduction provides rare insight into O’Dell’s life and work. We can start the story with Hunter Pitts O’Dell (his birth name), a blue-collar Detroiter and then Xavier college student, along with his new friend, future New York rent-strike leader Jesse Gray. O’Dell left college to fight fascism, joining the Coast Guard in 1943 and the racially integrated, radical-minded National Maritime Union. On ship, he read Du Bois and learned more about the complications of colonialism, communism, and the New Deal.

Coming back from the war, O’Dell enthusiastically signed up with “Operation Dixie,” the ill-fated effort to organize Southern workers, black and white, and thus to transform the most conservative region of the country. But, in the new mood of the Cold War, most labor organizations were busily going backward, and the great hopes for the South died with the purge of the CIO’s once-powerful left. O’Dell moved into that dangerous, volatile region and quickly demonstrated his leadership skills, earning a “Citizen of the Year” award from Miami’s African-American press for his successful mediation of a racial incident in a local grocery-store, turning mob rage into an effective boycott. He got himself invited to a conference of the still-strong Southern National Youth Congress (where he met or came indirectly into contact with some leading African American militants and intellectuals, including Angela Davis’s mother, Sallye Davis). But it was Du Bois’s address to this 1946 meeting that really hit home with O’Dell: Reconstruction had been betrayed, and now it was time for a new Reconstruction.

These were not socialistic ideas, necessarily, but they were certainly radical, and, as late as 1946, they were vitally alive among the notions within the New Deal coalition that seemed, despite the death of Franklin Roosevelt, still very strong. Then the tide turned suddenly, and all sorts of public figures who had been treated with respect and admiration found themselves assaulted with redbaiting and, especially in the South, with black-baiting and new anticommunist laws, as well. Lynching was not quite back in style, but Northern liberals of the Truman variety did not seriously object to FBI pursuit of civil rights activists, if they happened to be tainted with “red” records. Many prominent liberals, including Senator Hubert Humphrey and his sometime speechwriter Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., made it clear that isolation and prosecution of anything resembling sympathy for the Soviet Union—or even resistance to the Cold War machine—was a prerequisite to racial progress. Only the brave or foolish would actually join the Communist Party at a time like this.

Mark O’Dell down among the brave. And not entirely reckless in his bravery. The wider following of the Popular Front—surrounding the Communist Party but less demanding in many ways—in the South stubbornly held on in Birmingham, Alabama, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, New Orleans, Louisiana, and a scattering of other spots. O’Dell did what civil rights organizing as could be done, at a time when the Alabama legislature banned the NAACP. The pressure from authorities was severe, and arrest could come at any time, so O’Dell lived and worked under a variety of pseudonyms, moved often, met secretly with other activists, and moved on. Snagged in 1958 by the FBI at a job with a black-owned insurance company, he used his constitutional right against self-incrimination and refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, gaining almost instant notoriety as “one of the most belligerent” witnesses ever called.

Leaving the South, he joined his old pal Jesse Gray in tenant organizing and tactically took on a new first name, Jack (his father’s name). Even as the repression got to him, the ground was shifting; the Southern work of Dr. King and others had made all-out suppression of black rights more difficult. Meanwhile, leading liberals now fretted aloud that if the United States could not bring some kind of equality to its minorities, it would face rough-going in a world where the new nations were mostly nonwhite, and anticolonialism translated easily into anticapitalism.

Thus O’Dell, the formal intellectual-organizer, emerged and swiftly found himself in the lead, creating, for protest sit-ins, a benefit concert —featuring the likes of Diahann Carroll, Harry Belafonte, Pete Seeger, and Sidney Poitier. By the time the 1960 presidential campaign opened, he was asked to coordinate get-out-the-vote efforts in the Bronx for Kennedy, and soon thereafter, joined the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). That is, close to King and not far from the FBI’s vendetta against King, which intended to unseat and replace the great leader with someone more malleable. On the verge of becoming Executive Director of the SCLC, O’Dell was instead forced out by the pressure that Kennedy administration operatives put on King.

A new life began with Freedomways: no one wrote more often, across the next twenty years, essays and unsigned editorials alike. O’Dell was hugely valuable for his contacts with activists, artists, and intellectuals. Freedomways was a truly gorgeous-looking magazine, not large in format but slick and full of illustrations, photos, and art of various kinds. A bit like the old pre-1920 Masses magazine or the New Masses at its late 1930s peak, it also resembled the magazines and newspapers of the “New Negro” in Harlem, 1910s to 1920s, saluting black achievement and style.

To say that Communists were involved was obvious to anyone knowledgeable, and looking closely at the masthead: the editor was Esther Jackson, Southern Negro Youth veteran and wife of Communist leader James Jackson. But “Communism” rarely appeared in print here, and the real topics at hand were in the freedom struggle; likewise in antiwar sentiment and mobilization; also in varieties of Pan-Africanism, from Mother Africa to the Caribbean, United Kingdom, United States, and Canada. It was not a Black Nationalist magazine, an aspect for which it earned considerable criticism and real hostility (Harold Cruse’s polemical attacks, famous at the time, attacked the magazine for failing to credit black capitalism), but which was also the legacy of the Popular Front. Freedomways carried the dream of the New Deal 1940s resiliently, no matter what others might do or say.

O’Dell’s work was not confined to Freedomways, nor did it end with its demise in 1987. As a close advisor to Jesse Jackson and the PUSH organization, a member of U.S. delegations visiting sites across the troubled third world, a key intellectual figure in campaigns, from discrediting South African Apartheid to advancing the Nuclear Freeze, he was especially key in the Rainbow Coalition and Jackson’s run for President in 1988. He decided to leave the United States shortly after, and continues his long-lived engagements from Vancouver, Canada.

By including a selection of his writings, Climbin’ Jacob’s Ladder saves much of O’Dell’s work from being left in libraries and forgotten. These essays were not shortened or excerpted: they are historical documents deserving to be understood in their own time and in ours. Each essay is carefully and tellingly introduced by Singh, who modestly takes on himself the task of explaining its context.

These essays are not easily summarized because the political and historical points are so numerous and so precise that readers are urged to take up particulars especially useful to themselves. Singh observes that Marxism is a major source of insight for O’Dell but by no means the only source; as someone wrote about C.L.R. James, his black Marxism is not an adjunct of Marxism but something different, closer to the overlap of two intimately related, but not identical, trends. Nor, of course, is it limited by what he learned in a decade or so of being in or around the Communist Party.

One crucial thing O’Dell did learn, in my view, more a product of the Popular Front than Marxist ideas or Communist interpretations: that current political wisdom always rests on a careful strategic and tactical assessment of the balance of forces. The Democratic Party, to take the obvious example, is never out of the picture—or the whole of the picture. Understanding class, racial, and cultural dynamics of social movements offers an organic approach to how things stand and may be changed. Understanding the world picture provides the widest-angle view of the possibilities and dangers.

Thus, the essays here, and Singh’s annotations as well, illuminate a long history of American racism, its connection to slavery days and to colonialism—legacies painfully alive into the present day. O’Dell lucidly describes the rise of the civil rights movement, and the brutal response of authorities to the late 1960s uprisings, as a second Reconstruction, and a second project to overturn the consequences of Reconstruction. Strategically, O’Dell sees the political world around the Rainbow Coalition as dangerous, but promising, territory; and the narrowing of the movement to electoral politics (worse, the seeking of foundation money to accomplish social change) as part of a downward spiral.

Is there a road back upward? In an optimistic Afterword, written in 2009, O’Dell notes the mass enthusiasm for a certain black presidential candidate. The enthusiasm was more real than the candidate, as it now appears in history’s rear-view mirror. But O’Dell was shrewd enough, as always, to point to the movement of history. Things never stay the same.

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