Climbin' Jacob's Ladder: The Black Freedom Movement Writings of Jack O'Dell

Climbin' Jacob's Ladder: The Black Freedom Movement Writings of Jack O'Dell

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This book collects for the first time the black freedom movement writings of Jack O'Dell and restores one of the great unsung heroes of the civil rights movement to his rightful place in the historical record. Climbin' Jacob's Ladder puts O'Dell's historically significant essays in context and reveals how he helped shape the civil rights movement. From his early years in the 1940s National Maritime Union, to his pioneering work in the early 1960s with Martin Luther King Jr., to his international efforts for the Rainbow Coalition during the 1980s, O'Dell was instrumental in the development of the intellectual vision and the institutions that underpinned several decades of anti-racist struggle. He was a member of the outlawed Communist Party in the 1950s and endured red-baiting throughout his long social justice career. This volume is edited by Nikhil Pal Singh and includes a lengthy introduction based on interviews he conducted with O'Dell on his early life and later experiences. Climbin' Jacob's Ladder provides readers with a firm grasp of the civil rights movement's left wing, which O'Dell represents, and illuminates a more radical and global account of twentieth-century US history.

Editorial Reviews


O’Dell is an intelligent and astute writer, organizer, and leader. . . . Singh’s . . . introduction is a valuable narrative of the social and intellectual history of the late 20th century, told from a perspective that has been too often missing. . . Important for students of the civil rights movement and US social History.

Monthly Review

"Climbin’ Jacob’s Ladder is an important document in political history, even more so in exploring the intimate political and cultural history of the left so often undiscussed, or discussed only among trusted friends."


O’Dell is an intelligent and astute writer, organizer, and leader. . . . Important for students of the civil rights movement and US social History.

African American Review

Like the title of Ornette Coleman's classic 1959 album Tomorrow is the Question!, Climbin 'Jacob's Ladder questions the ultimate legacy of the civil rights movement as chaotic social and economic conditions continue to define many African Americans, as well as they do the global poor. Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|In his introduction, Singh stipulates that "this book is meant less as a simple act of recovery than as a reminder and resource of hope in times of darkness." With Climbin' Jacob's Ladder, Singh and O'Dell have more than accomplished the difficult task of prompting productive memory.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520274549
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/30/2012
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 330
Sales rank: 925,380
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

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Climbin' Jacob's Ladder

The Black Freedom Movement Writings of Jack O'Dell

By Nikhil Pal Singh


Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94506-7


Report on Voter Registration Work, Southern Christian Leadership Conference

Typescript submitted September 28, 1962.

Jack O'Dell wrote this report on black voter registration work in September 1962, for the sixth convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), held in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The report details and summarizes the work carried out across eight southern states from February 15 through September 1 of that year, which O'Dell had spearheaded in his role as regional consultant. The document offers unusual insight into the ordinary—or, as O'Dell writes, "dull and undramatic"—details of grassroots organizing: staffing, fiscal management, assessment, and planning. At the same time, it illustrates the centrality of black voter registration and electoral politics in SCLC's long-range goal of transforming the political institutions of the South.

Objectives and Aims

In each of the past six years, the SCLC Annual Convention has been called around themes that were particularly timely for our era. Last year, as you remember, the convention's theme was "The Deep South in Social Revolution" and this theme reflected the convention's estimate of the character of this period of change in the South. "It is," the convention stated, "a social revolution," and in our day-to-day work we are constantly being required to assess the dimensions of this revolution.

This year's convention's theme, "The Diversified Attack on Segregation," once again represents a theme which flows out of our practical experiences in the day-to-day work in the civil rights movement. From the days of Montgomery, 7 years ago, right down to Albany, Georgia of today, the development of the Freedom Movement in the South has brought into focus the many-sided, all-embracing character of the segregation system. Certainly the attacks upon the nonviolent army that is seeking to extend Constitutional rights to our southern region are quite "Diversified Attacks" from the segregationists.

Increasingly experience teaches us that of central importance to the success of our efforts to abolish segregation is the battle for the Ballot. Even the most die-hard segregationist in public office can be made to respect voting power. These segregationist politicians are the last troubadours of a dying system. As we know, SCLC had its birth in the philosophy and practice of nonviolent direct action to end segregation. To consolidate the gains achieved from "Freedom Rides," "Sit-ins" and selective buying campaigns, it is necessary to build up a base of Negro political power as a guarantee that the pace of progress is not slowed to a token pace, but moves ahead with deliberate speed. Sensitive to these realities, SCLC has given voter registration a place of major priority in the over-all work of our organization.

What We Have Accomplished So Far

Early in this fiscal year of 1962, SCLC set itself the longterm objective of doubling the Negro vote in the South. As the first milestone of this long range plan, we selected to work this year in parts of 8 southern states. The areas selected were as follows: The Virginia Tidewater, Eastern North Carolina, the 1st and 2nd Congressional Districts of South Carolina, Eastern Tennessee, Georgia State, South Central Alabama, The Delta of Mississippi and North Louisiana. To implement the first year of our program we hired five full time field secretaries whose major concentration is voter registration work, in areas assigned, and we also employed a full time office secretary to handle the administrative aspects. The results have been encouraging. In the first 8 months of this program year, we aided 59 communities in the South with financial assistance, staff personnel and literature, and these communities added some 42,000 Negro voters to the voter registration rolls. During this 8 month period (February 15–September 1st), SCLC spent some $34,000 in voter registration work, through direct grants to local communities, salary and travel to staff personnel etc. The $34,000 spent included $11,500 in foundation money appropriated to SCLC through the Voter Education Project headed by Mr. Wiley Branton. Aside from the progress measured by statistics, this program in voter registration along with [the] Citizenship School program, has reached thousands of our people across the South with the idea that the Ballot and Freedom are inseparable. SCLC, together with other civil rights organizations, is helping to make this "An idea whose time has come."

One of the most significant achievements of this period was SCLC's role in Albany, Georgia in getting that embattled community to undertake an unprecedented voter registration drive which has resulted in more than 1,200 Negroes being registered in less than 6 weeks, and the program is still going strong.

Progress in Spite of Obstacles

It is generally recognized that voter registration work is often dull and undramatic as compared with some of the other types of civil rights activities. It is also becoming increasingly dangerous, as Mr. Wiley Branton's report to the convention will no doubt indicate. Our field secretary in Mississippi, the Rev. James Bevel, recently summed up the situation in the Delta of that state; in a recent report he states:

The main problems can best be seen through the Ruleville (Miss.) report. People were fired, some were jailed and others' businesses were closed because they attempted to register. You know of the shooting which was a direct result of our voter registration drive.

A whole range of both subtle and overt obstacles have been thrown in the path of voter registration. The burning of 3 churches in rural South West Georgia is symbolic. Our voter registration workers have encountered the arbitrary cancellation of car and home insurances, and so-called "eye tests" being given by the registrars (in Shreveport, Louisiana); $15.00 fines for (quote) "walking on the wrong side of the road" in Liberty County, Georgia; night visits by the police to the homes of new registered voters in Albany, Georgia; and, of course, hand in hand with these go the ever-present form of intimidation in the form of charging voter registration workers with being "subversive." However, we are making progress in spite of these obstacles and our staff is determined, in the words of the spiritual, "Ain't nobody going to turn us around."

The Growing Significance of the Negro Vote

The voter registration "Prospectus" submitted by SCLC to the Foundation Project early this year set forth an analysis of the importance of the Negro vote in the South in the following statement:

The Negro Suffrage Movement has come into head-on conflict with the efforts of the arch-segregationist forces to capture control of the machinery of state government. Despite a cleverly contrived network of methods designed to frustrate its growth, the Negro Suffrage Movement in the South has been building its strength consistently since the end of World War II. The martyrdom of many of its assassinated leaders, economic reprisals, extra-legal terrorist activities, "slowdowns" and "Resignations" by registration officials, purges of registration rolls, etc.—All these devices have not stopped the Negro people in their valiant effort to uphold civilization in the South, through the establishment of the right of universal suffrage for all Southerners. Today, there are approximately 1,400,000 Negro registered voters in the South, representing the advance guard of political enlightenment and the best hope for progressive social change, both in our Southern region and, indirectly, in the nation as a whole.

In a very real sense, this analysis lies at the heart of our decision to move ahead boldly in the field of voter registration. The recent primary elections in Georgia in which a new Governor was elected dramatically confirm the correctness of both the analysis and the decision. Because of a number of positive factors prevailing in this state, we singled out Georgia for special concentration towards securing a sizable increase in Negro voter registration. With the aid of two new field secretaries assigned to Georgia, J. H. Calhoun and Rev. Fred C. Bennette, SCLC embarked upon a systematic program which included the holding of voter registration clinics in every congressional district in Georgia. These clinics serve to recruit and organize some 1,300 volunteer organizers for voter registration in some 35 key counties, carefully selected because of the potential they represent. SCLC invested more than $12,000 in Georgia alone, stimulating voter registration activities, and we played a major role in securing 25,000 new registered voters who were eligible to vote in the gubernatorial race. While in this report we do not wish to go into a detailed analysis of the Georgia elections, a few outstanding facts are worth noting. For the first time in 54 years the people of Georgia had the opportunity to elect a Governor and state legislature by a popular vote without the encumbrance of the county unit system. A record number of people went to the polls. Secondly, the voters were confronted with a clear choice between an arch-segregationist candidate and a candidate who adopted a more moderate attitude on the question of segregation.

While continuing to engage in activities designed to increase Negro voter registration, SCLC at the same time recognized that the Negro in Georgia must be encouraged to participate in elections in order not to be purged from the registration rolls. Consequently, we organized a state-wide "Get Out The Vote" rally in Macon, Georgia, in which more than 5000 people from all over the state participated with the key-note address being delivered by Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. since our President was in Albany in jail at the time. Likewise, the events in Albany itself, during this summer, in which SCLC was so deeply involved, helped to clarify the issues in the recent elections and to stimulate the Negro voter to participate.

While SCLC carefully avoids any involvement in partisan politics, and concentrates its energies on increasing Negro voting strength, nevertheless it is significant that our president, Martin Luther King, Jr., became the symbol of the Negro vote in Georgia during this election campaign. Judging from the segregationists' propaganda, one would have thought that Martin Luther King was running for governor instead of Marvin Griffin and Carl Sanders. This concern on the part of the segregationists, however, is a back-hand tribute to the symbolic leadership of our President and to the newly emerging role of SCLC as an effective organizer in the political arena of this state.

The results of the election are quite significant. The moderate candidate won by a land-slide. The 162,000 majority vote he received over his opponent was approximately the size of the vote cast by the Negro community and there is no doubt where the Negro voter stood in this election. For example, in eight predominately Negro precincts in Atlanta, the segregationist candidate received 269 votes and the moderate candidate received 15,312. There are many other examples that could be given. It is estimated that approximately 90 per cent of the Negro vote went to the newly elected governor. Likewise, in the congressional race, in Atlanta, the Negro voter gave the liberal candidate a 7 to 1 vote of confidence against his segregationist incumbent. Getting enough Negroes on the registration rolls to make the difference in an election is why SCLC has set the goal of doubling the Negro vote all across the South. As our President has said, "These elections show that a racist can no longer be elected governor of Georgia," and this is a development of far-reaching importance. SCLC does not seek to claim exclusive credit for the increase in Negro voters in Georgia this year. Many organizations share in this achievement. However, we believe that many will agree that our record in voter registration, in Georgia and elsewhere in the South, measures up well when compared with the most effective organizations engaged in voter registration work.

In May of this year, SCLC held a Quarterly Conference of Voter Registration Organizers and invited representatives from local organizations from all across the South. Our staff and representatives from voter registration organizations in 7 Deep South states, including every major city in Georgia, were in attendance. The purpose of the conference was to review our work in voter registration during the first quarter of this year, exchange ideas on the many problems that we confront and explore possible solutions to these problems. Such conferences are invaluable as occasions for staff-training and the cultivation of the teamwork spirit so necessary to the success of our efforts. In the future we expect to hold such conferences of voter registration organizers at least three times per year as a permanent feature of SCLC work in voter registration. In many respects, this is the most important feature of our voter registration work.

Much Work Ahead

It would be a mistake for us to conclude from this report that all is "peaches-and-cream" in our voter registration work. To the contrary, there are many rough edges and rocks to be ironed out, both in our day-to-day practical organizational field work, as well as in the administrative end of things. More energetic participation by our present SCLC affiliates and a broader base of affiliate organizations are two of our most urgent needs for the success of our voter registration project. The pressures of schedule and continuing strain on our limited financial resources are too often the cause for wide gaps of time passing before the national office is able to respond to requests for assistance that come from various organizations and staff personnel in the field.

Some of these imperfections, of course, are part of the natural growing pains of a relatively new program that is getting off the ground. We are confident that with hard work and the open-minded exchange of constructive criticism among us and our colleagues, these weaknesses in our present work will be overcome.

The next two year period ahead of us (which includes the 1963 observance of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation) will find SCLC stretching out in the field of voter registration.

The state of Georgia needs 100,000 more Negro voters in order to be a counter-balance to the hard-core segregationists block vote (300,000) as revealed in the Lt. Governor's race. This is a major challenge to us.

In Louisiana we will continue our work in [the] Northwest section of that state enlarging the area of our work beyond Shreveport to include the entire 4th Congressional District, which is the center of the Citizens Council organisation in that state.

Alabama, which to-date has been the most neglected area of our program, will find SCLC working at least in Montgomery, Anniston, Gadsden and the rural areas surrounding these cities.

In North Carolina we will be extending the frontiers of activities to several additional hard-core segregationist counties in the Eastern region.

In Mississippi we will continue our assistance in the Delta in an 8 county area, as we are in Virginia's Tidewater with the addition of Lynchburg to our sphere of operations.

In Florida we are prepared to give assistance to voter registration efforts in Tallahassee where our affiliate is based.

These more or less will be the main concentration areas, but [this] does not exclude the possibility of giving assistance to other areas where the request is made.

As our President and other officials have often stated, the job of voter registration is a big job, bigger than the resources of any one organization, and SCLC is at all times ready and willing to cooperate with our sister organizations in the civil rights field to get the job done. One of the strategic objectives of our program is to help place voter education-registration activities on a permanent, year-round basis in every community in the South.


Excerpted from Climbin' Jacob's Ladder by Nikhil Pal Singh. Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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