Updated: Mar 18, 2021
Did you know James Eber Campbell organized with greats like Malcom X, Jack O’Dell, Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, and James Baldwin?
This is a reminder that our elders’ stories need to be preserved.
Born in 1925, Campbell lived on what used to be President’s Street (now Septima P. Clark Parkway) and his father was a farmer, railroad fireman and taxi driver from Weston, South Carolina. His mother was a Charleston native and graduated from Avery Normal Institute the same year as Septima P. Clark. She was an educator and later, a homemaker.
Campbell attended Immaculate Conception and later Voorhies Industrial Institute where he was drafted into World War II during his senior year. He integrated the military as a Montford Point Marine and was stationed in the South Pacific. Eventually Campbell went on to college to study English and theater at Morgan State. He was introduced to Dialectical Materialism during his time with the Off Broadway movement, when he worked alongside Uta Hagen, put on plays with Amiri Baraka and helped establish the Actor’s Studio.
His education was interrupted again when he was called back to active duty during the Korean War. After the war, he pursued a master’s in Educational Administration at Bank Street Teachers College, joined the editing staff of W. E. B. Du Bois’s Freedomways magazine and became a sought-after educator helping to establish Black and multicultural studies as a discipline at the college level.
Simultaneously, Campbell dove deep into the civil rights movement, especially during the Black power and community control movements of the 1960’s. In 1964, he co-founded the Organization of Afro American Unity (OAAU) alongside Malcolm X who had recently split from the Nation of Islam. Campbell taught at the organization’s Liberation School.
He invited his roommate, writer and activist, Jack O’Dell to speak as a guest lecturer in one of his first classes. Activist Yuri Kochimama was one of his Liberation School students. The organization dissolved after the assasination of Malcolm X. Shortly after, Campbell and O’Dell’s apartment was broken into and the only items stolen were his recordings from the OAAU.
In 1973, Campbell who was recently divorced and afraid of becoming the target of FBI surveillance, relocated to the then newly independent Tanzania with his two young children Du Bois Kenyatta and Paul Robeson Campbell. Through a program spearheaded by Tanzanian President Julius Neyere, he was contracted to teach English in a poor, rural, isolated village called Bihawana where he used the African Writers Series as the basis for his curriculum. During his free time Campbell took advantage of the isolation to further his study of Classical Marxism and mentored young African teachers. After five years in Bihawana he relocated to Dar es Salaam where he taught secondary English to the children of expats, aid workers and leftists at the International School of Tanganyika.
Campbell returned to the Lowcountry to assist his mother before she passed and taught briefly at Burke, before returning to New York and focusing on administrative education. After retirement, he returned to Charleston and continued the fight for labor rights as a member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCSD). He also acted in an advisory and mentorship capacity for organizations in the Lowcountry focused on social justice and educational strategy. One of his last endeavors was an article published in late 2020 through the CCSD’s discussion journal Dialogue and Initiative, entitled “Jack O’Dell: A Beacon of Social Justice Unionism and the Civil Rights Movement: A Long Correspondence with Jack O’Dell.”
May he rest in eternal peace and power. Images and research from the Avery Research Center.