May 2011, Week 4


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Sat, 28 May 2011 13:15:19 -0400
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The Jack O'Dell Story

By Paul Buhle
Monthly Review
May 1, 2011


    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.

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.

Paul Buhle, a contributor to Monthly Review since 1970,
is now retired from teaching and produces radical comic


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