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“You Couldn’t Escape the Anti- Communism:” Jack O’Dell Recalls Red-Baiting in the Civil Rights Movement

Anti-communism still had tremendous political weight during the early 1960’s, when opponents of Civil Rights used it to undermine support for the African-American movement. Like many other black leaders, Jack O’Dell, who was the director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) office in New York in 1963, became the target of an FBI operation. The bureau leaked unsubstantiated charges against him in an attempt to smear the SCLC as communist influenced. O’Dell remembered that President Kennedy pressured Martin Luther King, Jr. to sever ties with O’Dell, who Kennedy described as a notorious communist, in order to win support for the Civil Rights Act.

Listen to Audio:

O’DELL: We may have been out from under McCarthyism by the ’60s but we were not out from under the official ideology of anti-Communism. President Kennedy on June the 23rd of 1963, had a meeting at the White House with the civil rights leadership because he had introduced the civil rights bill. He took Martin out on the White House lawn and told him that his relations with Jack O’Dell was jeopardizing the passage of the civil rights bill. He told Martin that I was the number four Communist in the United States. Martin said, “Well, I want to see the documentation of that?” He said, “Okay. We’ll set up for you to see it.” This is what Martin reported to us. Kennedy’s rationale was that Strom Thurman and some of the southern Democrats were getting ready to make an issue of who Martin’s connections were that they considered communists, Jack O’Dell being on the staff and Stanley Levinson as a confidant. Kennedy, said to Martin, according to Martin, that if they made that a public issue he, Kennedy, would not support the civil rights bill. So Martin has a choice, in effect, coming out of that conversation, to sever these ties and salvage Kennedy’s support for the civil rights bill or stay with his friends and have an attack come from Strom Thurman. Unless you sacrificed your principles you couldn’t escape the anti- Communism. They had no reason to Red bait him but it went on anyway. I’m just saying that the anti-Communism had become institutionalized as an effective weapon in intimidating and preventing the movement from developing. And of course, it had succeeded in some instances and failed also because movement was developing anyway.

Source: Interviewed by Sam Sills 8/5/93
Courtesy Sam Sills