This blog has taken me in so many fantastic and unexpected directions! Lately, I’m delving deep into civil rights history to tell the stories of operations masterminds who worked behind the scenes to raise money, track programs, keep records, and more! This is post number 4 – see more from this series here! In this post, you’ll meet two of my personal heroes, Jack O’Dell and Stanley Levison. Between the two of them, they raised most of the SCLC’s budget, with groundbreaking techniques to boot! The fact that we misremember history and relegate these freedom fighters to the footnotes is a tragedy that I feel personally compelled to correct. So without further ado…

Jack O’Dell in interview for a film

For readers who are familiar with J Edgar Hoover’s abusive wiretapping of Dr. King and his advisors, under the unsubstantiated guise of monitoring Soviet influence on the civil rights movement, Stanley Levison and Jack O’Dell (nee Hunter Pitts O’Dell) are perhaps household names. Much ink has been spilled about whether they were (or weren’t) Communists, whether their Communist predilection was (or wasn’t) influencing Dr. King, and their subsequent painful expulsion from Dr. King’s inner circle. To repeat those histories here would further underscore that the most interesting thing about them were their Communist sympathies. But what my research has demonstrated is the complete opposite! These two, especially O’Dell, were operations masterminds, fundraising trailblazers, and behind-the-scenes brains-and-brawn that kept the SCLC afloat during some tough times. And I’m not the only person who thinks so! Yet, these figures loom obscure despite their utter brilliance.

Jack O’Dell passed away in 2019 at the age of 96 after living an impactful and storied life. In this post, I’m going to focus on his contributions in the ’60’s to civil rights organizing, though they are by no means his only contributions to movements, as Victor Navasky so eloquently explains:

O’Dell had a fascinating history, before, during, and after his Communist Party period: As a merchant seaman he was elected by his shipmates to go to NMU’s labor school. As a petition-gatherer, he invoked his college fraternity network to collect a record number of signatures. As a first-time benefit fund-raiser, he raised more than half of SCLC’s budget for the year. Lacking a college degree, he was the most popular professor in Antioch’s Graduate School of Education. As aide to Rev. Jackson in the 1988 presidential campaign, he was put in charge of the “foreign desk.” An insider reports, “he was instrumental in Jackson’s positions on Latin America, Cuba, South Africa, Palestine—essentially all of those that mattered most to the constituencies the campaign was trying to put together.” All of the above, he operated coast to coast (on Long Island, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award and in the state of Washington, he has the Jack O’Dell Center for Reflection and Education named after him).

The File This Time, excerpt from The O’Dell File

One of the big lessons I see in the Jack O’Dell story is that good data stewardship IS good organizing IS good data stewardship, wash, rinse, repeat. While I’ve known so many social movement organizations that silo fundraising/database operations from the so-called “real” work of mobilizing and megaphones, it’s increasingly clear to me that (1) this narrative damages movements and (2) this narrative is not historically accurate. Certainly Dr. King was an acclaimed fundraiser (regularly doing speaking tours and passing the hat when SCLC needed money – sometimes to a point of garnering criticism!) and fundraisers like Levison and O’Dell had some real organizing chops. And you know what? That’s what I see in my organizing community, too! Time to put that tired, old refrain to bed.

O’Dell started out with the SCLC working on benefit concerts in 1960, which was one of their primary fundraising strategies. Just after the Kennedy election wrapped up, he started planning a concert with the Rat Pack (Sammy Davis Jr, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin), replacing a prior staff person who was getting married. Meanwhile…

Stanley Levison’s twin brother said that the American Jewish Congress had started a direct mail program, a brand new way of fundraising. Levison said he would try to talk to Dr. King about that. […] So, I found that the School of Management at NYU was offering a brand new course in direct mail and I got a professional certificate in direct mail fundraising. I learned the ins and outs of it. We proceeded to… not only adding to our event strategy with prominent artists, but also had direct mail. The idea was that Dr. King would write an article for The Nation every year and they would turn over a list of names of subscribers to solicit for funds for SCLC. […] I met Dr. King at the Carnegie Hall event [with the Rat Pack] but the first time I was in a meeting with him was to discuss direct mail as a way of guaranteeing income year round.

Video interview with Jack O’Dell, from the Tamiment Library’s digitized collection of Communist Party Oral Histories. (Edited slightly for clarity)

As I got deeper into this history, two big questions emerged for me. What *is* the history of direct mail fundraising and how does it relate to the Civil Rights Movement? And, just *how* successful was O’Dell and his team at this new-fangled strategy? So, I hit the books! And it turns out that there’s quite an exciting story to tell.

Photo by Markus Winkler on

Perhaps the comprehensive history of “direct mail” doesn’t exist yet (if it does, I couldn’t find it) but I DID find some history through the Smithsonian Museum of Postal Service (WHO KNEW?!) the describes how technology evolved in the mid 60’s due to a very important invention: zip codes!

The 1960s brought the ZIP Code (and its ability to help select target groups) and the computer. Both would have a major impact on non-profit fundraising. The 1960 and 1970s were years of rising popular consciousness over a number of issues, including civil rights, the Vietnam War, and the environment. Many non-profits harnessed the power of ZIP Codes and computers. New groups (Greenpeace, World Wildlife, and the National Organization for Women) found supporters and funds. Existing groups (Sierra Club, the ACLU, the American Conservative Union and The League of Women Voters) dramatically increased their membership and support thanks to new direct mail techniques.

Postal Museum

I think that the SCLC belongs in the list above and the singular reason for that is the gentlemen who are profiled in this blogpost, and their understudy, Adele Kanter, who worked with O’Dell as the SCLC office manager in the NYC branch. Not only did they change the world through resourcing SCLC BUT they were also part of the first wave in the art/science of mail fundraising, a technique that is still enormously popular and data intensive (but they were doing it likely without computers!).

One fantastic article that I read (if I could quote the entire article, I would) describes how O’Dell tried to firm up SCLC’s fundraising operations and track results. For example,

To gauge the effectiveness of different techniques, he asked SCLC staff to record on the receipt what had prompted the gift. This enables us to link donations to specific appeals. For example, the SCLC paid for a full-page advertisement in the 7 May edition of the New York Times. Of the 5,822 receipts issued by the SCLC in May 1963, about a third were attributed by its staff to the Times appeal. Most of these contributions were small (less than $10) so they totaled less than a quarter of the $185,176 that came in during May, and most of these respondents gave addresses in New York state.

Peter Ling and Johannah Duffy. “Backing Dr. King: the financial transformation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1963.”

(For my Salesforce peeps – Primary Campaign Source / Campaign Influence, anyone?! And yet, he was keeping track of this largely by hand!)

By 1964, O’Dell had exited the organization and the success of mail appeals fell by more than half. Perhaps this could be attributed to a decline in headlines, but it’s clear to me that it is also, in large part, due to O’Dell’s impressive skill. It sounds to me like he was quite a virtuoso. According to Taylor Branch in Parting the Waters, the mailhouse “operation had raised $80,000 for the SCLC in the past year [August 1961], more than half of the SCLC budget — above expenses of less than $10,000. In the parlance of direct mail, they reported to King that they were adding every day to a “master list” of 12,000 “proven contributors” (574-575).

O’Dell’s impact went beyond “bringing home the bacon.” He also shaped the culture of the SCLC in New York and beyond.

The New York SCLC office was a beehive of efficiency. Experience there as a typist and envelope stuffer had led Bob Moses to expect something similar at SCLC’s Atlanta headquarters, where he found instead the languid atmosphere of a church social. (…) King asked O’Dell to begin commuting between New York and Atlanta. his new assignment was to apply the lessons of his fund-raising project to voter registration. Wearing two hats, O’Dell became in effect the SCLC’s first quartermaster. He was keeper of lists, statistician of votes, designer of systems.

Branch 575, emphasis my own

In addition to introducing his “get shit done” attitude, O’Dell’s fundraising also influenced wider culture by allowing the SCLC to shape narrative and communicate directly with supporters. After the New York Times published photographs of police dogs attacking activists in Birmingham, he commented that “mass mailings were already showing a fantastic shift in public opinion. Mailing lists were yielding many times the expected return. Ten-dollar contributions suddenly were giving way to big ones. A woman from Queens had sent $3,000. One list had money pouring in from Canada. These early signs put the New York mail room in chaos and O’Dell in awe” (Branch 771).

By 1962, O’Dell was using direct mail to make financial projections, which proved essential going into the Birmingham campaign. Once again quoting Taylor Branch, “we are mailing now in lots of 200,000 to lists of proven return rates. Based on the mailings already out from the New York office and those in the works, O’Dell predicted confidently that direct-mail income would more than pay for the SCLC’s regular expenses through the first six months of the year” (691).

Why is it important to tell the history of SCLC and direct mail fundraising? Well, I have a few answers to this question:

  • SCLC developed a base of donors (primarily in NY and CA, according to Ling and Duffy, who analyzed thousands of receipts) which enabled the organization to take bigger risks, post bail for activists, and not be reliant on fickle major donors and domineering foundations
  • SCLC was using brand new technology for fundraising – this shows me that they were willing to invest in/experiment with “back office” operations in a way that many nonprofits shy away from
  • I have a hunch that the SCLC (O’Dell especially) figured out custom techniques for data management, but I don’t yet have the, well, data to back that up!
  • The dominant narrative of civil rights organizing centers around Dr. King and his small circle of advisors. In reality, there were dozens, hundreds even, of leaders holding down logistics and operations – many of whom were women, were Jewish, were queer, were Communists, etc. It may be the case that these stories have been struck from collective memory not only because they are “boring” but also because they are radical and threatening to the status quo!
  • At a time when the Kennedy administration was trying to co-opt the movement with foundation dollars designated for voter registration… and the NAACP and Urban League were doubling-down on “professionalizing” their administrative activities by securing external funding arrangements (according to Ling and Duffy), the SCLC went in the opposite direction and looked to the grassroots for funding
  • I hope that of us who see ourselves playing a behind-the-scenes role can take inspiration from Jack O’Dell who saw fundraising as just as essential as other types of organizing and throughout his career developed transferrable skills and applied them to many different campaigns.

In preparing for this blog post, I also reviewed the Guide to the Microfilm Edition of The MLK Jr FBI File, Part Two: The King-Levison File, where there are ample references to Jack O’Dell’s innovative work developing partnerships with progressive organizations to share mailing lists and develop strategy for how to best leverage his existing, growing list. My heart breaks and rages when I think about the invasive, baseless, inexcusable activities of the FBI, equally dedicated to undermining Communists and civil rights activists, which is to say, the progressive movement. And yet, as our resident archival nerd, I can say that I am fascinated by the regularity with which mailing lists and fundraising operations were recorded in the files – and the extent to which Dr. King was informed and consulted on fundraising strategy, thanks to Levison, O’Dell and Kanter.

It’s clear to me just how central this operation was in the nucleus of the SCLC, yet it’s been relegated nearly to obscurity! To all of my pals who work in gift entry, donor stewardship, data management, annual funds, grassroots fundraising, and beyond – this one is for you! And to my pals who agree that “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded” (was just talking about this amazing movement manifesto the other day!), learning this history shows just how much work it will take. I’m rolling up my sleeves – let’s do it!

Special thanks to Dr. Amanda Klonsky and Paul Buhle for contributing research and Dwight Dunston, Montgomery Ogden, Lina Blount, Dana Robinson, Ryan Leitner, and Salesforce friends for encouraging this project.

7 thoughts on “bread scare: the story of Jack O’Dell and resourcing the SCLC

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