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Jack O'Dell was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1923. O’Dell was raised there by his grandfather, a janitor at a public library, and his grandmother. He attended an all-black college Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans from 1941 until 1943. During World War II, he served in the U.S. Merchant Marines, which functioned as a branch of the military forces for the duration of the conflict. During this time, he joined the National Maritime Union, one of the few racially integrated labor unions in the U.S.
During the 1950s, Jack O'Dell was a member of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA).(The Man Behind the Myth, Des Griffin, p20)
He worked with Martin Luther King Jr. O'Dell was a director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Because of O'Dell's past involvement with the Communist Party, King received pressure from many liberal leaders—including the Kennedy brothers, John and Robert—to distance himself from O'Dell. After conferring with King, O'Dell decided to accept a less prominent post within the movement in order not to alienate important allies of the Civil Rights struggle; nevertheless, he continued to play a decisive role in the SCLC, as well as in King's move towards the political left towards the end of his life.
Jack O'Dell worked closely with the Rev. Jesse Jackson. He was a senior foreign policy advisor to the "Jesse Jackson for President" campaign in 1984. He also worked with Jackson as an international affairs consultant to the National Rainbow Coalition
O'Dell wrote for Freedomways, an African-American political journal, from its beginning in 1961 to its end in 1985. He was Chair of the Pacifica Foundation, which supports the Pacifica Radio Network, from 1977 to 1997.
Jack O'Dell lives with his wife, Jane Power, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. He is active in mentoring new generations of political activists—as well as historians of the Civil Rights Movement—in the Pacific Northwest.