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“I Never Met a Black Person Who Was in the Communist Party Because of the Soviet Union:” Jack O’Dell on Fighting Racism in the 1940s

Jack O’Dell was a union organizer, a civil rights leader, and a member of the Communist Party. His political consciousness formed in the 1940’s, when the African-American community became more assertive in their efforts to improve conditions and expand civil rights. Like many blacks, including one of his role models, Paul Robeson, O’Dell was drawn to the Communist Party because of their staunch stand against racism and segregation. During the 1940’s, O’Dell found a welcoming environment in the National Maritime Union. Later, he worked for the director of the Southern Christian Leadership Counsel (SCLC) office in New York, before becoming SCLC’s voter registration director in seven southern states.

Listen to Audio:

O’DELL: A good buddy of mine, Jesse Gray, he went into the Merchant Marines. He came back. So I went out to see him and he says, “Man, I found a Union where there’s no segregation.” He’d shipped out in the SIO where they had—you know—black and white jobs because all blacks were confined to the Steward Department and whites had all the other jobs. He said, “But I found a Union that you could just throw in your card and you could ship deck, you could ship engineer room, absolutely no segregation. It’s called National Maritime Union. And guess what? They’ve got a black who’s Secretary General, named Ferdinand Smith.” I said, "Oh, you’re kidding!. So, that inspired the idea that I would go into the Merchant Marines because I wasn’t going to have to put up with a lot of Jim Crow.

I had three role models as men in my upbringing my grandfather, John O’Dell, who was a janitor in the public library. He got up every morning at 6:30 and went to work. I learned my work habits from him. My second role model was my father, Jack O’Dell. I liked just the way he was as a human being. I wanted to be like him in the sense of, I don’t know how to describe it, just a love for my father — many sides to him. And the third role model was Paul Robeson. When I was getting ready to go away to college my mother told me, “Honey, if you decide to join a fraternity, join the Alphas.” I said, “Why?” She said, “Because Paul Robeson’s there. (chuckles) I said, ”Okay." You know? That didn’t mean anything to me but it still stuck with me. I had heard Paul Robeson was a Communist. I had heard a lot about Paul Robeson. He sang down at Booker T. Washington High School in New Orleans my sophomore year and I went to the concert. He sang songs from China, the Soviet Union, Negro spirituals; had a great presence. But I was most impressed when, after the concert, he spent an hour signing autographs for students and asking them where they were in school ad what you were doing, and so forth, and I was in that line. So Paul Robeson became a political model. I liked his militancy, I liked his stance, I liked his integrity and he was a powerful symbol. I began to follow his career more closely because, as I said, he was a role model for manhood,—black manhood.

So it was from the larger progressive movement that I as a seaman got an interpretation of what was going on. It wasn’t just an NMU thing. It wasn’t just a CIO thing. There were lynchings going on in the south of veterans returning from World War II. Segregation was still up. What had begun to emerge in the country was an assault on racism coming out of World War II by the NAACP and Unions. And the segregationists defended segregation by saying they weren’t against blacks —they weren’t against equal rights for blacks —they were against communism. But their interpretation of Communist was anybody who supported the right of blacks to have civil rights. While most blacks didn’t join the Communist Party, they understood that the Communists were the fighters. And they knew individual Communists who were fighters, and they were black and white and Latino, and so forth. And with this anti-Communism that now was becoming the state religion and with the persecution of the Communists, I just said, well to show where I’m at I’ll join the communists. I’ll join the Communist Party. And I did, and I remained an active member of the Party for about seven years.

I was first and foremost a person with the African-American experience. I knew living in the north and I knew living in the south and I knew the contradiction that this country was living with great hypocrisy. Secondly, I was viewing this as a trade Unionist because militancy of the trade Union movement appealed to me. I knew you had to fight and you had to fight in an organized way and you had to fight with a weapon. And for me the weapon was the Union. So the fight to keep the Union true to the course that it had set for itself was of great priority. Thirdly, I found within the Union a left called Communists and other variations of that which I respected. I was not, shall we say, inexorably attracted to them for any particular reason except that I saw the role they played in the Union and that there would not have been a good NMU without their participation, from what I could see.

At the same time, the NMU stood as a bulwark against the kind of institutional racism that I had experienced. I knew that people had different views with respect to, say, the Soviet Union. I’ve never taken a census, but I never met a black person who was in the Communist Party because of the Soviet Union. We joined the Communist Party because they fought against racism and they were dependable in that fight. And they were Union builders. They were mass movement organized builders. And I knew that as an individual you were strengthened by the fact of unity with other people. So it was precisely that perspective that led me into a relationship to the left.

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