The Fierce Urgency of Now
Click here to order
by Michael Zweig
Jack O’Dell is a long-time activist in the labor, civil rights, and peace movements of the United States. Jack was born and raised in Detroit and joined the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II, serving in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean. After the war, Jack continued working in the maritime industry as an active member of the National Maritime Union (NMU) until the anti communist purges that transformed the labor movement in the late 1940s. The union took his card in 1950 when he disembarked in Galveston after returning from Japan, ending his life at sea and his work in the NMU.
Throughout the 1950s, like many seamen, Jack found work ashore: in the restaurant and construction industries in New Orleans and later in insurance in Birmingham and Montgomery, and he continued to be part of local civil rights campaigns in those cities. From 1959 to 1961 he was an organizer with the Lower Harlem Tenants’ Council in New York City, and then joined the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), where he was the director of voter registration organizing in seven southern states, and a close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. After leaving SCLC in 1963, Jack became an associate editor of Freedomways, the leading journal of the civil rights movement, and continued to be active in the civil rights, labor, and peace movements.
Following the 1976 uprising and massacre at Soweto, South Africa, Jack became the Director of the International Affairs Department of Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) and for many years thereafter worked closely with the Rev. Jesse Jackson. He was one of the principal organizers of the June 12, 1982, march and rally that brought one million people into New York City’s Central Park in support of the United Nations Special Session on Disarmament. Jack served on the board of SANE/FREEZE through the 1980s and was a national leader of the movement in opposition to the Gulf War in 1990- 1991. From 1977 to 1997 he was Chair of the National Board of Pacifica Radio. Jack is now retired and living in Vancouver where he continues to be engaged as a mentor to a network of young activists in the Pacific Northwest and as an analyst of global social developments. The articles in this pamphlet by history graduate students John Munro (University of California at Santa Barbara) and Ian Rocksborough-Smith (Simon Fraser University) present further details of Jack O’Dell’s life as well as reflections on the historical context and significance of his career.
At the 2004 How Class Works conference at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the Center for Study of Working Class Life presented Jack O’Dell with its Award for Lifetime Contributions to Social Justice for Working People. This pamphlet contains three papers from that conference, concluding with Jack’s review of the historic missions of the labor, civil rights, and women’s movements in the continuing fight for democracy. His paper contains the first articulation of the call for a Democracy Charter for the United States as a tool for unifying the many strands of social activism into a single social force.
In this fiftieth anniversary year of the Montgomery bus boycott and the adoption in South Africa of the Freedom Charter that became a beacon for the long freedom struggle in that country, we publish these papers hoping that they will contribute to the extension of these traditions in the United States of the twenty-first century.Download the Democracy Charter