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“I Wasn’t Interested In Living In The United States If I Wasn’t Going To Be In The Movement:” Jack O’Dell on Civil Rights Organizing

Jack O’Dell was one of many young black servicemen who returned from World War II determined to change conditions for African Americans at home. Along with veterans, African Americans who had participated in wartime industries and union organizing, and who had experienced improvements in pay and education, became more assertive in their demands for equality. As a member of the National Maritime Union, O’Dell participated in union organizing and challenging racial discrimination. Later, he used his job as an insurance agent to speak with African Americans in their homes, encouraging them to register to vote. These activities formed a basis for his participation in the Civil Rights Movement, during which he directed the New York office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

Listen to Audio:

O’DELL: I was living in the south and I had gone to school in the south in college so therefore I ... this was post-world War II. There were young veterans coming back and so forth, so I joined the American Veterans committee and the Southern Negro Youth Congress, which was linking to my generation. And the Southern Negro Youth Congress was very educational because I was able to connect up to the network of people of my age who wanted to settle into the southern environment but also change it. One of the most informed things that we participated in was a census of every day prices for consumer goods in downtown Miami where the white people lived and in our area, which I guess now is called Overtown. And we found that the prices for bread, milk, Campbell’s soup and so forth was twenty-five to thirty percent higher in the black community than in the white community. So the people least able to afford something are paying the highest prices for the necessities. I learned that through the Southern Negro Youth Congress in 1946 and I hear it again in 1991. And then the other educational experience was that I went to a Convention in Columbia, South Carolina, and this was the first time blacks had used the city auditorium of that city even though it was a majority city, black. And that convention had around the walls the pictures of all the blacks who had been elected during Reconstruction. I had never seen that in my life before. I had three years of college, twelve years of high school and three years of college and I did not know that here had been black congressmen and Superintendents Of Education and mayors of cities during Reconstruction in the south. But they had the pictures of it and that ... that fascinated me. So it was a great educational experience that year and a half with the Southern Negro Youth Congress. And I wanted to continue working in the south 'cause, as I told you, I wasn’t interested in living in the United States if I wasn’t going to be in the movement.

I had a job in Protective Insurance Company in Birmingham. Well, you know, insurance people go into everybody’s homes because if you work with a black insurance company that’s weekly premium insurance and you see people on a regular basis. And just as you have provided them with some insurance security, the level of confidence and trust that’s built up, people talk to you about all kinds of things. But you can also talk to them about all kind of things. In those days it was the nature [of the job] to see hundreds of people in one day. “Mrs. Jones, you all registered?” "No, I’m not.“ ” Well, sit down right here. Oh you is registering?“ ”Yeah.“ Well, she has confidence in this insurance agent that she would never have necessarily to go down to the court house. That’s risky. But she wants to register to vote. ”Well, you can register. It’s okay. I' going to show you how you do this."

SILLS: Were you actually signing people up to vote and when you left their house they were ... they could then vote?

O’DELL: No. They had to ultimately go to the court house, but what we would did do was go over the form with them. We had gotten hold of the form and reproduced it and then we would show you, “Here. It’s simple. It’s nothing to be afraid of. You can answer all these questions. Practice.” Once they practiced they got some confidence and they would. The movement was emerging in Montgomery and I went into Montgomery as the Agency Director for Montgomery, the manager of the Montgomery District on the end time of the Montgomery bus boycott. There was a crowd in our agency in Birmingham that was very interested in what was going on in Montgomery. After the N AACP was outlawed in Birmingham, or in Alabama, the NAACP was outlawed we formed the Alabama Christian Movement For Human Rights. And so we had weekly meetings in Birmingham that Fred Shuttlesworth was the President of, so I became involved in that.

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