In this WSB newsfilm clip from a press conference held in Atlanta, Georgia on July 26, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. responds to charges that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) employee Jack O'Dell is involved in the Communist movement. The clip's audio is inconsistent and some statements may not be recorded completely.
The clip begins with a silent portion in which Dr. King is seen with SCLC leaders, Reverends Ralph D. Abernathy and Wyatt T. Walker as well as reporters who are taking notes. Reverend Walker appears to take notes, and King appears to be speaking while a photographer takes pictures. A car, possibly from a news station, appears through the window with two African Americans standing beside it. An unidentified man off-screen comments on someone helping the organization with public relations; the comments are incompletely recorded. Next King appears to answer a question about Jack O'Dell, an African American who worked for the SCLC for a time and was accused of Communist connections. King reports that SCLC has not employed O'Dell since June 26 of that year after a meeting held with eight members of the organization's executive committee. King also states that someone, presumably O'Dell, "took the fifth amendment" when he appeared before a senate committee meeting held in New Orleans. In response to a reporter's question, King confirms that O'Dell is the only person who has been involved with the SCLC who has been called before a congressional committee investigating Communist influences. He emphasizes that although O'Dell appeared before a congressional committee, he has not been convicted of anything. King reports that O'Dell worked closely with the Communist party in Louisiana at one time, but was never a member of the party. Following another reporter's question, King replies that SCLC did not know of O'Dell's alleged communist connections until articles appeared in the New Orleans Times Picayune and the Birmingham News. When SCLC found out about the allegations, King continues, the executive committee discussed the issue with O'Dell, accepted his temporary resignation, and initiated an investigation. Asked about the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, King stresses that he was only at the school once in 1957 or 1958 for four hours and while there shared the platform with former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. However, King asserts if he had been a student at the school, he would not be ashamed of it, since he thinks the school "was doing a very significant job in training leaders for the integration struggle." King condemns the school's closure as "simply another design of a state in the South seeking to block the civil rights movement" which used "a so-called trumped up moral charge to outlaw it."
The Highlander Folk School was founded in 1932 by Myles Horton and Don West as an adult education center training people to work in the Labor movement; in the early 1950s, the focus shifted to civil rights work. King spoke at Highlander's twenty-fifth anniversary during the Labor Day weekend of 1957. His presence was documented by photographer Ed Friend, and photographs of King at the event were published in the Georgia Commission on Education's propaganda piece, "Highlander Folk School: Communist Training Camp." In 1961 the state of Tennessee revoked the school's charter and confiscated its property.
Next, King suggests that the causes of street demonstrations aid the Communist cause more than working to remove the conditions. He affirms "as long as you have segregation and discrimination alive in this nation the Communists will have a convenient propaganda weapon." He praises people who work "through street demonstrations and other nonviolent means and legal means to get rid of segregation and discrimination" and suggests that they "are rendering a much greater service to democracy than the individuals who through their adamant attitudes continue to hold on to these conditions." King also declares that Hosea Williams, leader of the Chatham County Crusade for Voters in Savannah, Georgia, is not connected with the Communist party. He suggests that if the Crusade for Voters is housed in a building owned by an organization accused of Communist connections, the Crusade is unaware of the connection. King emphasizes the organization is "committed to all of the things that those who are opposed to Communism are committed to." Finally, King reviews Jack O'Dell's relationship with SCLC; O'Dell was recommended to SCLC after his work with the Bronx Committee of Citizens for Kennedy by the committee chair; after allegations of communist connections, the SCLC board asked for O'Dell's temporary resignation pending investigation. King asserts that after the investigation revealed O'Dell "had no present connection with the Communist party nor any sympathy with the philosophy," he was brought back to the staff until May 1963 in Birmingham when SCLC realized O'Dell's employment "could be used against the organization by segregationists and race baiters" at which time O'Dell sought other employment. King stresses that SCLC does not have connections or sympathies with communism and that the principal of nonviolent demonstration is opposite the philosophy of communism. The clip ends as the lights for the press conference and the microphone is turned off.
A common attack on the civil rights movement was the allegation of communist influences or connections, such as the attack on Jack O'Dell. Influential national leaders including president John F. Kennedy and attorney general Robert F. Kennedy repeatedly warned King about maintaining connections with "known Communists"; King prefered to discuss allegations with people rather than clandestinely removing them from organizations or influence. Allegations of communist influences on King and on the SCLC led to surveillance and wiretapping by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
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The Civil Rights Digital Library received support from a National Leadership Grant for Libraries awarded to the University of Georgia by the Institute of Museum and Library Services for digital conversion and description of the WSB-TV Newsfilm Collection.
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Cite as: WSB-TV newsfilm clip of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. responding to charges of communist influence in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Atlanta, Georgia, 1963 July 26, WSB-TV newsfilm collection, reel 1089, 8:20/19:17, Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection, The University of Georgia Libraries, Athens, Ga, as presented in the Digital Library of Georgia.