A valued organizer and fundraiser who was unapologetic about his early Communist associations, Hunter Pitts “Jack” O’Dell was a controversial figure in the civil rights movement. His role as a fundraiser for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as ammunition against both Martin Luther King, Jr., and the SCLC. As O’Dell wrote to King upon his forced resignation from SCLC: “Not the least formidable of the obstacles blocking the path to Freedom is the anti-Communist hysteria in our country which is deliberately kept alive by the defenders of the status-quo as a barrier to rational thinking on important social questions” (O’Dell, 12 July 1963).
Born in Detroit, Michigan, on 11 August 1923, O’Dell was raised there by his grandfather, a janitor at a public library, and his grandmother. After graduating from public school, he attended Xavier University in New Orleans from 1941 until 1943. During World War II, he served in the Merchant Marines, and worked as a merchant seaman after the war’s end. He was active in the National Maritime Union and during the 1948 presidential election was a leader of “Seamen for Wallace,” a group campaigning for Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace. In 1950 he was forced out of the union and maritime work during an anti-Communist purge. In the late 1950s O’Dell began working for a black insurance company, first in Birmingham and then in Montgomery, where he heard King preach at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. He resigned from the firm after being called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and moved to New York for graduate studies at the New York University School of Management, earning a certificate in 1960. While there, he assisted Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph in organizing the April 1959 Youth March for Integrated Schools, which King addressed.
O’Dell first began work with SCLC as a volunteer in March 1960, and was hired by King in 1961 to manage a mass-mail funding office for SCLC in New York, where he worked closely with King advisor Stanley Levison. By January 1962, O’Dell was asked to serve as SCLC’s director of voter registration in seven southern states. He worked in this capacity, along with the Citizenship Education Program (CEP), until 1963.
In March 1962 Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy authorized the FBI to begin surveillance of Levison and King, on the assumption that Levison was influenced by the Communist Party. Ten months later, on 26 October 1962, the New Orleans Times-Picayune published a story denouncing O’Dell as a Communist who had “infiltrated to the top administrative post” in SCLC and had been carrying out “Communist Party assignments” (Branch, 675). In the wake of this attack, King drafted a letter stating that SCLC was “on guard against any such infiltration,” but acknowledging that such accusations and investigations by HUAC were “a means of [harassing] Negroes and whites merely because of their belief in integration” (King, November 1962). Pending an SCLC investigation into the charges, O’Dell submitted a temporary letter of resignation. However, he continued to work with SCLC, attending a key planning session for the upcoming Birmingham Campaign at the CEP’s training center in Dorchester, Georgia, in early 1963.
On 22 June 1963, King and other civil rights leaders met with President John F. Kennedy at the White House. Prior to the meeting King was taken aside by Burke Marshall, Robert Kennedy, and President Kennedy, in turn. All three told him that keeping Levison and O’Dell on staff meant opening SCLC to the influence of communism, and told King to cut ties with the two men. Though he was not willing to part company with Levison, his closest advisor, two weeks later King wrote to O’Dell asking him to resign from SCLC permanently. King explained that “any allusion to the left brings forth an emotional response which would seem to indicate that SCLC and the Southern Freedom Movement are Communist inspired” (King, 3 July 1963). King described O’Dell’s departure as “a significant sacrifice commensurate with the sufferings in jail and through loss of jobs under racist intimidation” (King, 3 July 1963).
O’Dell responded to King’s request on 12 July 1963, submitting his final resignation and sharing that his work with SCLC had been “a rewarding experience which I shall always cherish.” He expressed hope that “everything that is decent and civilized in our country will inevitably be swept into the orbit of the ever-mounting Negro Freedom Movement as it emerges from the economic and political darkness of segregation” (O’Dell, 12 July 1963). O’Dell went on to work as an associate editor of the journal Freedomwaysfor 23 years and served on the National Coordinating Committee to End the War in Vietnam from 1965 until 1972. He later served as a student mentor for the Institute for Community Leadership (and the Jack O'Dell Educational Center in King County, Washington.
Branch, Parting the Waters, 1988.
King, Address at the Youth March for Integrated Schools on 18 April 1959, in Papers 5:186–188.
King, “Letter to Answer Questions of Communist Infiltration,” July 1963, SCLCR-GAMK.
King to O’Dell, 18 January 1963, MLKJP-GAMK.
King to O’Dell, 3 July 1963, MLKJP-GAMK.
O’Dell, Interview by King Papers Project staff, 10 May 2007.
O’Dell to King, 12 July 1963, MLKJP-GAMK.