Jack O’Dell, King Aide Fired Over Communist Past, Dies at 96


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 Communist inspired.”

He added, “In these critical times, we cannot afford to risk any such impressions.”

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 subversive activities.”

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.”

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 Kennedy administration.

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. 29, 1963, to protest the inequalities faced by African-Americans.

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.”

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