Community organizer and civil rights activist Hunter Pitts O’Dell was born in Detroit, Michigan on August 11, 1924. His father George Edwin O’Dell worked in hotels and restaurants in Detroit. His mother, Emily (Pitts) O’Dell, who studied music at Howard University, later taught adults to play classical piano. O’Dell’s grandparents played a pivotal role in raising him during the turbulent 1930s, and he took his grandfather’s nickname, “Jack,” as his own in order to pay homage to him. O’Dell’s witnessing of racial violence, labor strikes, and social unrest during this period led to his interest in labor and social reform issues.
In 1941, O’Dell left Michigan after high school to attend Xavier University in New Orleans, where he studied pharmacology. He abandoned his studies in order to enlist in the Merchant Marines and fight for the United States during World War II. It was during this period that he became exposed to a variety of progressive and radical thinkers of American and European origins. He also joined an integrated union (the National Maritime Union) and became involved in a variety of civil rights activities. One of these included organizing hotel and restaurant workers in Florida in 1946.
In the 1950s, at the height of McCarthyism in the United States, O’Dell’s left-leaning ideals as well as his membership in the Communist Party USA, led to his expulsion from his union. He remained, however, one of the most energetic and vocal community organizers in the South. He found it difficult to sustain employment because of federal investigations into his political views. O’Dell’s work in the South in the 1950s introduced him to nonviolent resistance as a tactic of the civil rights movement. He claimed to have resigned his Communist Party membership at the end of the 1950s.
While involved in planning the 1959 youth march on Washington for integrated schools, O’Dell became acquainted with major civil rights leaders and strategists such as Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, and Stanley Levison. O’Dell joined King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and was particularly active in planning its successful Birmingham campaign in 1963. O’Dell’s involvement, however, allowed opponents to smear the entire movement as “communist” because of his past membership in the Communist Party. Recognizing that his continued involvement with King and the Southern civil rights movement would continue to be a problem for SCLC, he resigned from the organization late in 1963. After his resignation, O’Dell wrote for Freedomways, a political journal dedicated to black freedom struggles worldwide.
Jack O’Dell continued to be a political activist. He spoke out against the Vietnam War, supported Eugene McCarthy in the late 1960s, worked on Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign, and was involved in a number of civil rights and community organizing events in New York and other cities across the United States.
O’Dell and his wife Jane Power lived in Vancouver, British Columbia. On October 31, 2019, O’Dell died of a stroke at a hospital in Vancouver. He was 96 years old. He is survived by his wife; a daughter, Judith Beatty; a son, Tshaka Lafayette; his brother Edwin; and his sister Carolyn Peart.