The Washington Socialist <> November 2018
By Kurt Stand
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
Brothers, sisters all
Each day brings fresh news about some outrage or tragedy that reflect the temper of our times. Resistance there is, and it is growing, but the lurking fear is whether it will be enough. Or perhaps, better stated, people live a life, not a “history,” and the long arc of history provides little solace for those individuals struck down or damaged by the cruelties of our time. In the 1939 film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” a line is repeated over and again: “lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for,” a sentiment that speaks to the qualities of endurance and principle but contains as well the sense that the goal of social change is furthest away when it seems graspable.
Yet, what motivates people (even the proverbial Mr. Smith) is the conviction that justice can be won, that people’s voices will be heard over the violence and lies of the powerful for whom power and wealth are the only values worth holding. But to bring about that change means not only endurance and a deep-rooted humanism; it requires, as well, the critical intelligence that goes to the roots of injustice. Only by understanding the strength that lies in people and by understanding the strength of institutions and ideologies designed to hold people in check can popular movements build the linkages and connections that are essential to move from resistance to transformation. All those attributes were displayed in “The Issue of Mr. Odell” (1984, directed by Rami Katz), a conversation with the 94-year old Jack Odell shown on September 20 at Takoma Busboys and Poets as part of the monthly Bread & Roses labor program sponsored by the Metro Labor Council. The film had only one weakness: One wishes the 35-minute documentary had gone on longer.
O’Dell, well-known in activist circles, yet little known beyond, was a central figure in the early Civil Rights Movement. In the film, he discusses his role working with Martin Luther King Jr. as part of the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), where he helped organize voter registration and fundraising during the years between the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 1963 March on Washington. The Civil Rights Movement, we need to recall, was built by organizing individuals and whole communities in the face of brutal violence and intimidation. And it was built in the face of the intense hostility of both local police and, as O’Dell explains, the FBI.
That FBI — which under J. Edgar Hoover fully accepted the segregationist mantra that any advocacy of “race-mixing” was a plot hatched in Moscow — seized upon O’Dell’s connection with the Communist Party to pressure King, pressure that was ultimately successful as O’Dell had to resign his position in SCLC. This not because King succumbed to the anti-communist mindset that sought to narrow the program and objectives of the Civil Rights Movement, but rather because he — like O’Dell and countless others — would not take the bait and allow accusations at a time of fear to undermine the unity in action of the movement being built on the ground.
What the documentary makes clear is that in every situation, O’Dell’s decisions were motivated by what actions he could take to advance the cause of racial and social justice. He explains how his politics developed through his experience sailing on merchant ships as a member of the National Maritime Union (NMU) during and in the years after World War II. The NMU was a left-wing union that was uncompromising in building black–white unity in large part because many of the most principled leaders and engaged rank-and-file members were communists. And O’Dell explains, that is why he joined the Communist Party: It fought against racism within the working class. In those years, too, he saw the power of a unified labor movement. A strike in 1946 exemplified what the subsequent strategy of the Civil Rights Movement — for a strike, O’Dell notes, is mass nonviolent direct action.
That unity was soon broken up; The Red Scare began — communists were purged from unions they helped organize. Soon thereafter the FBI began screening merchant seamen, and thousands (O’Dell among them) were blacklisted. Detroit born, O’Dell had gone to college in Louisiana and sailed out of the deep-water port in New Orleans. He remained active as a communist in the early ’50s in the struggle against racism in the deep South. Police and vigilante violence were difficult enough but being a Communist in those years only brought more repression. So, O’Dell left the Communist Party because his goal remained finding the best means to move and build the struggle going forward — a logic similar to King’s. O’Dell retained his commitment to transformative politics and his socialist convictions — perspectives that came to the fore when he served as managing editor of Freedomways (one of the most important vehicles for black radical thought, culture and analysis in the 1960s and ’70s).
After leaving SCLC, O’Dell came to work with Rev. Jesse Jackson in the establishment of Operation Breadbasket and PUSH in Chicago; thereafter, he worked closely with Jackson during his presidential runs and in building the Rainbow Coalition. O’Dell not only played a critical role in developing strategic politics for the Rainbow, he also played an important role in bringing an internationalist perspective to Jackson, especially around the Mideast and the need for justice for Palestinians. Many of us attending the screening knew him from when he was in DC working for the Rainbow. Gene Bruskin, a longtime union activist and later the lead organizer with UFCW’s Smithfield organizing drive, had been on the Rainbow staff coordinating its work with unions and, in that capacity, he often met with O’Dell. Bruskin led the post-film discussion by describing what he learned during those years — pointing out that unlike many who see organizing as being about talking, for Jack O’Dell it was all about asking questions and listening. That quality reflects his deep-seated respect and appreciation for people; it also reflects an approach to organizing that gives collective voice and power to individual needs and desires, organizing, that is, for fundamental change over the long term. A sense of that comes through at the end of the documentary, where O’Dell talked about the importance of Black Lives Matter. Unlike those from previous generations who live in the past, O’Dell expressed respect for the courage and commitment of activists fighting racism and organizing for social justice in the face of the dangers in the present.
Less than two weeks later, another event in Washington DC highlighted linkages past and present. The Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) 42nd Annual Letelier-Moffit Awards held on October 4 at the Carnegie Institution in Washington DC, presented awards for domestic and international activism in honor of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffit, who were killed by a car bomb at Sheridan Circle in Washington DC in 1976. Letelier was a member of the Chilean Socialist Party and part of Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government, serving as ambassador to the United States and then minister of foreign affairs. After the US-supported military coup that resulted in thousands dead, tens of thousands tortured and over a hundred thousand exiled, Letelier made his way to DC where he worked for IPS to expose the Chilean fascists and their supporters in US business, government and intelligence circles. Ronni Karpen Moffitt, then 25, newly graduated from college and newly married, dedicated to fighting injustice and helping the underprivileged, was Letelier’s assistant. The car bomb that killed them on their way to work was meant to intimidate those who were part of the resistance to Chilean fascism from abroad. But that resistance continued and will continue until the vision of a just world is finally realized. Recognizing that the struggle for such change is global and local, IPS each year honors an international and domestic individual or organization that expresses the endurance needed to continue in a commitment to the dream of what can be.
This year, Derechos Humanos Y Medio Ambiente (DHUMA) was the international awardee. A human rights NGO working among indigenous communities in the Pumo region of southern Peru, representatives of the group spoke of the work they have done in resisting exploitative and extractive mining corporations. (DHUMA is a member of the Pax Christi International Advocacy Working Group on Extractives in Latin America.) Canadian-based Bear Creek Mining company was destroying the land and polluting water, undermining the health and well-being of people in the community solely for the profits that would be sent away from Peru to the line the coffers of a corporation that would then invest to exploit others elsewhere. A multi-year battle, this was one of the relatively rare successes; the Peruvian government responded to the pressure of the indigenous community and abrogated the contract. Unfortunately, that did not end the struggle — the corporation sued the Peruvian government which, in turn, has used that as a reason to criminalize dissent. And leading indigenous activists, arrested during protests held to stop the dam, are still in prison. The DHUMA representatives who accepted the award asked those in attendance to circulate a petition demanding that the Peruvian government ends its criminal prosecution of activists and that the Bear Creek Mining Company respect the will of indigenous communities.
A similar long-term commitment was also evident in the story of the Domestic Awardee: The New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice (NOWCRJ), founded shortly after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Construction companies rushed in to do highly profitable repair and reconstruction, systemically excluding African American workers in New Orleans from jobs, while exploiting the immigrant work force they brought in to do the work. Instead of giving in to the divide and conquer practices of corporate interests, NOWCRJ acted to defend and protect the needs and rights of all workers. Today, they continue to organize against gentrification, which forces blacks out of communities in which they have lived and worked for generations, as well as for jobs and rights on the job and to end racist policing and criminal justice practices. At the same time, they organize within immigrant communities, in particular, among the undocumented, who work and contribute to society while remaining always one traffic stop away from deportation. As a model of multiracial, grassroots organizing seeking to expand democracy by transforming the South, NOWCRJ is a continuation of the work of the Civil Rights and Black Freedom movements of the 1960s and ’70s, but a youthful continuation, very much in the spirit of our times today.
That connection was made plain in the words and notes of the music performed that evening by Crank Lukongo, an Afro Go-Go Roots Music collective, and in the comments by the program’s emcees Tope Florian, a Nigerian-American writer and IPS board chair, and by Noura Erakat, a human rights attorney and Palestinian scholar and activist who helped found the DC Palestinian Film and Arts Festival. Greisa Martinez Rosas, the deputy director of United We Dream Action (UWDA) — and an undocumented immigrant who came to the US as a child with her parents from Mexico — introduced both awardees. She talked about the determination of undocumented activists in United We Dream to be open and unafraid in their struggle – clearly as determined and unafraid in their activism as those who braved bullets in Latin America; as those who braved water hoses, dogs and bombs in the deep South; and as those who braved police and vigilante violence on union picket lines.
And, sitting there, it wasn’t lost on me the fact that New Orleans had been a center of Jack O’Dell’s work; whenever we can see lines of continuity, even if not visible, we discover where the strength lies to persevere. The strength inherent in that continuity was personified by Paul Robeson. Prior to the screening of “The Issue of Mr. Odell,” we showed the film “Paul Robeson: Scandalize My Name” (2007, 35 minutes) a documentary that depicted Robeson’s rise to prominence, his deepening political commitment to racial justice, peace and socialism and the anti-communist hysteria that destroyed his career and his public presence — and sought to destroy him as a human being. The film revealed connections that can be seen everywhere. Robeson was a friend and comrade of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Neruda had been the Communist Party candidate for President in 1970 but withdrew in favor of Allende, the Socialist Party candidate; the alliance between the two parties forming the backbone of the Popular Unity government. Letelier and Karpen Moffett gave their lives honoring the legacy of that attempt to create a democratic path to socialism; it is a legacy IPS honors not only in the awards it gives, but in the work it continues to do. Robeson concluded “Here I Stand,” a 1958 book written as a statement of his continued adherence to his convictions notwithstanding all the attacks on him, with lines from Neruda’s “Let the Rail Splitter Awake,” a statement of the feelings and emotions behind his politics and behind all the politics discussed at both the Bread & Roses and IPS events:
Let us think of the entire earth
And pound the table with love.
I don’t want blood again
To saturate bread, beans, music:
I wish they would come with me:
the miner, the little girl,
the lawyer, the seaman,
to go into a movie and come out
to drink the reddest wine.
. . .
I come here to sing
and for you to sing with me.
In an essay on Robeson, “A Rock in a Weary Lan’,” O’Dell charts the critically important role Robeson played in providing leadership for the Black Freedom movement with its linkages to militant trade unionism and opponents of war and fascism, how that unity was broken up by racism, anti-communism, warmongering and fear — and yet how the underlying currents of the movement continued to chart its course, subsequently embodied in the courage and leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. “A Rock in a Weary Lan’” is an old slave spiritual that alludes to Robeson’s strength and the strength of a people who refuse to bow to oppression. O’Dell wrote an essay on King shortly after his assassination that analyzes the nature and political growth of the Civil Rights Movement, the title — and the title of the book of O’Dell’s essays — a reference to another spiritual: “Climbin’ Jacob’s Ladder.” To read these essays is to understand the basis of the connection O’Dell sees between movements of those of earlier eras to that being waged today by Black Lives Matter — and the connection between that and the movement of the undocumented, of those organizing workplaces and communities suffering most sharply from poverty and oppression, those building unions wherever and however they can. And from there to linkages with global struggles, such as those of the indigenous seeking to preserve the earth, of Palestinians demanding dignity and justice, of all people everywhere demanding rights denied.
And to read them is also to understand why optimism is possible and so necessary to confront the hate-mongering of Trump and his ilk. Both the films about O’Dell and Robeson and the presentations at the IPS awards ceremony were expressions of the need to be fully aware of the dangers of the moment without surrendering to fear — optimism rooted so long as the bonds of solidarity are grasped. In other words, those who maintain the patience, principle and passion that alone is the pathway to the road upon which lost causes can be won.
“Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” expresses those connections. Robeson recorded a version of it in the 1930s, it having previously served as a call for freedom during the years of slavery and a battle song for Union soldiers during the Civil War. During the mass union upsurge in the 1930s, it was sung by workers on picket lines, and in the 1960s, it served as one of the anthems of the Civil Rights Movement. Many versions exist but perhaps the lyrics quoted below from a Pete Seeger recording best speaks to the spirit of those honored, the spirit we need facing forward:
Every new one makes us stronger,
Every new one makes us stronger,
Every new one makes us stronger,
Sisters, brothers, all.
O’Dell, Jack. (2012, ed. Nikhil Pal Singh). Climbin’ Jacob’s Ladder: The Black Freedom Movement Writings of Jack O’Dell. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. See “Jacob’s Ladder: The Life and Times of the Freedom Movement,” pp. 160–176 (orig. pub. Freedomways, Winter, 1969); and “A Rock in a Weary Lan’: Paul Robeson’s Leadership and “The Movement” in the Decade before Montgomery,” pp. 199–214 (orig. pub. Freedomways, Winter 1971).
Robeson, Paul. (1958). Here I Stand. New York, NY: Othello Associates. The lines from “Let the Railsplitter Wake” by Pablo Neruda are quoted on p. 119.