By John Munro
His laughter is one place to begin.
As anyone with the good fortune of having had a conversation with Jack O’Dell knows, humor was at times his way into political critique, at others a culmination of it.
When George W. Bush, Tony Blair and their enablers were clamoring for their invasion of Iraq, I remember talking with Mr. O’Dell, or as he liked to be called, Jack, about that season’s drumbeat for a new war and, relatedly, the dilemma then facing the President of Mexico. With good reason, the Mexican people remained unconvinced by Washington and Wall Street’s attempts to associate Saddam Hussein with al-Qaeda, their allegations about an Iraqi threat in the Gulf region, or their claims about weapons of mass destruction.
Nonetheless, Vicente Fox undoubtedly faced very real pressure from the Bush Administration to wave away antiwar sentiment within his country. Affirm George W. Bush’s mistruths or listen to his own people? In the world of power politics, this was no simple question. But an answer, it seemed, presented itself: Fox, it was suddenly announced, was to undergo emergency back surgery.
Toward the end of a lengthy conversation about yet another war’s flimsy justifications and why establishment figures believed them or pretended to, and with a smile that turned to infectious laughter, Jack said something to the effect that Fox had temporarily dodged a bullet by going under the knife. We both then simply laughed together, for a good while. There was nothing especially funny about someone having painful back surgery, much less about the waves of shock-and-awe violence about to be unleashed upon an Iraqi people already beset by the consequences of Bush’s father’s war and Bill Clinton’s sanctions.
A Long, Momentous Life
But here, in processing a deadly serious situation through a perhaps unlikely emotional register, Jack showed that in the face of an elite bent on dominance, the full-spectrum variety, in this case, to laugh together is to share our humanity and to lay bare the contradictions of ruling ideologies. Here was, among other things, a political lesson, one of many imparted across the span of a long and momentous life.
That life began in Detroit, on August 11th, 1923. Jack was raised by his grandparents in the vibrancy of a Black working class who had won a measure of hard-fought access to the Fordist industrial economy, but also in a city where, as historian Elizabeth Esch describes, “the assembly line’s most advanced expressions proved compatible with a spectrum of white supremacist practice and ideology.”
As a young witness to the Depression’s deprivations as well as Age-of-the-CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) organizing, Jack began working out the dialectics of resistance and oppression under the terms of racial capitalism. When world war proved to be that system’s way out of the economic slump, it provided a backdrop in which Jack’s analyses became more structural, more transnational.
Leaving Detroit to study pharmacy in New Orleans at Xavier University led to Jack’s first encounter with the Jim Crow South’s system of formal racism. And it led him to Jesse Gray, a Louisiana local also studying at Xavier. With the war by then underway, Jack’s classmate considered postponing his studies and joining the Merchant Marine. He did and later returned to tell his friend Jack about the National Maritime Union, which opposed segregation while taking part in the fight against fascism. Jack, in turn, signed up for the NMU’s Double-V Unionism, with its popular-front antiracism, leadership schools, ship libraries, Marxist sailors and global ports of call.
A New Chapter
In the immediate postwar period, the mood was a hopeful one for many Black radicals and their allies. The power of fascism was defeated, the legitimacy of colonialism in question, the authority of businessmen under scrutiny. W.E.B. Du Bois captured that spirit in his legendary speech “Behold the Land,” delivered in Columbia, South Carolina in 1946 under the auspices of the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC), a group now sometimes known as “the first SNCC.”
Jack joined the SNYC after the war, and was present, alongside such artists and organizers as Paul Robeson and Esther Cooper Jackson, when Dr. Du Bois called on his audience to “build in the world a culture led by black folk and joined by peoples of all races – without poverty, ignorance and disease!” Du Bois’s pragmatic optimism and capacious analysis remained a consistent source of inspiration for Jack, combined with his by-then well developed proletarian, antiracist, and internationalist proclivities. Jack was not alone in this sensibility as he and his comrades in the Black freedom movement prepared for the work ahead.
But the forces of reaction were also ready. U.S. imperialism, now recalibrated under cover of the idea of the ”Cold War” and again entrenched abroad and at home, would bring, in journalist Diane McWhorter’s words, “the entire investigative apparatus of the United States government down on the civil rights movement.”
Jack was also not alone, then, in facing the brunt of what we call McCarthyism but, following historian Ellen Schrecker, we’d render more accurately as “Hooverism.” The escalating McCarthyite atmosphere of firings, houndings, imprisonments and deportations led by the early 1960s to a distancing between Jack and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s inner circle, despite Jack having become one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s key advisors.
This particular episode, involving as it did the Communist Party of the United States, J. Edgar Hoover, and the Kennedy brothers, is probably where Jack most often appears in the history books, but it was certainly not his initial encounter with the apparatuses of anticommunism, and it did not nearly mark the end of his influential contributions to the struggle against racial capitalism.
No Need for the Spotlight
To restrict our focus to this event is to misunderstand Jack’s real impact, not to mention misconstrue the fundamental role of the long civil rights movement in the United States and the world. Jack went on to write for and help manage the critical journal Freedomways, play a central role in the 1982 disarmament march that may have been New York’s largest-ever political demonstration to that date, serve as Reverend Jesse Jackson’s advisor on foreign affairs, and chair the board at Pacifica Radio. If a common thread can be discerned from such an array of activities, it was that Jack consistently played a central organizational and intellectual role without a need to be in the spotlight.
He received relatively little public attention, especially considering the scope of his accomplishments, exceeding as they do any attempt to encapsulate them here. In their own summation, Jack’s comrades James Campbell and Mark Solomon rightly remark: Jack “enriched the struggles of many for a better world and will remain a pillar for those who continue those struggles.”
The pace of his activity slowed somewhat after Jane Power – historian, mentor, activist and Jack’s partner – and he moved to Canada in the early 1990s. But his impact continued on:
- Activists in the Pacific Northwest at places like the Institute for Community Leadership
- Historians such as Karen Ferguson and Ian Rocksborough-Smith, and, profoundly
- A white man such as myself, with so much to learn.
I met Jane and Jack in 2001, and was lucky to be able to help organize some of Jack’s papers, attend the 2005 “Thinking through Action” conference in Jack’s honor, where Bill Fletcher Jr.’s keynote provided a powerful accounting of Jack’s significance in the context of a broad political arc of movement toward liberation, and take part in a discussion about Jordan Camp and Christina Heatherton’s book Freedom Now, another example of Jack’s ongoing engagement with contemporary analysis and struggle.
Needless to say, I learned a lot through these experiences, if never enough, about white supremacy, capitalism, repression, resistance and much more. By then, those contributions long obscured by anticommunism and Jack’s own humility began to be more widely acknowledged.
And here we owe a real debt to Nikhil Pal Singh, whose own deep knowledge and brilliant writing on the Black freedom movement made him an ideal interlocutor for Jack and Jane. Dr. Singh collected many of Jack’s incisive and prescient Freedomways writings into one indispensable volume, giving it a biographical and theoretical introduction which remains the best single treatment of Jack’s life that we have. It’s really in this book that we can see Jack working through questions about, for example, liberation and oppression, race and class, and colonialism and the Cold War that remain as relevant as ever. In addition, Vancouver filmmaker Rami Katz brought out an award-winning film about Jack’s life in 2018.
For the many of us who will miss Jack, it’s heartening to know that he lived long enough to see some of this recognition, just as it is gratifying to see his vision of what real social transformation will entail confirmed in the movements for antiracist and environmentalist socialism that inspire in their momentum even in our authoritarian, neoliberal times.
“He was a visionary,” Nikhil Singh said of Jack recently, “and maybe now we’re catching back up with that vision.” Born before Martin Luther King Jr., Frantz Fanon, Lorraine Hansberry, and other postwar revolutionaries long since passed on, in the end, Jack lived even longer than Dr. Du Bois. But now he is gone, and we are less for it. We are, however, left with his lessons and the memory of his laughter, and his example of a life very well lived.
Thank you, Mr. O’Dell. Thank you very much.
Lecturer in U.S. History at the University of Birmingham, John Munro is also author of The Anticolonial Front: The African American Freedom Struggle and Global Decolonization, 1945-1960. He would like to thank Charisse Burden-Stelly for honoring him with the invitation to reflect on the life and lessons of Jack O’Dell, and Michell Chresfield and Ian Rocksborough-Smith for their astute comments on an earlier draft.
Caption: Jack O'Dell was brought before the Senate for so-called Communist activities in the 1950s.
photo credit: archival