The Organizer Behind “The Salt of the Earth”

ACORN Canada organizers masters of land and sea!

Gananoque   One of the things that Judy Duncan makes sure has “pride of place” in the annual fall training sessions with ACORN Canada staff is “movie” night.  We’ve watched many of the classics (Norma Rae, which they loved, Bread and Roses with Adrian Brody, which they hated, and so forth).   This year it might have fallen off the agenda because there was an unexpected treat when we were comped a 1-hour cruise to see some of the 1000 islands in the St. Lawrence River Seaway, but, no, John Anderson from Vancouver had stumbled on the 1950’s blacklisted movie, Salt of the Earth about the great mining strike at the Empire Zinc Mine in New Mexico.

(left to right) Jill O'Reilly (Ottawa ACORN) along with James Wardlaw and Peggy Cooke plan ACORN Canada communications strategy

For a Canadian crowd the movie needed context since the whole Taft-Hartley horrors of the McCarthy era are hard for Americans to understand and simply bizarre in the Canadian context.  The notion of “blacklisted” filmmakers along with a controversial union like the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers organizing in the western United Sates in the footprint of the old IWW bulwark, the Western Federation of Miners, made little immediate sense.  The issues of racial discrimination were obvious and cheering for the women saving the strike on the picket line brought the house to its feet, but the labor issues of miners living in a company camp is a foreign experience.

Since the movie distinguished so clearly between “real” actors in the film and “real” people, it was interesting to try and track down more about the key organizer portrayed in the film, Clinton Jencks.  A couple of paragraphs from the best piece by far hopefully will lead interested organizers to barriozona.com to the fuller story entitled The Union, Community Organizing, and Civil Liberties:  Clinton Jencks, Salt of the Earth, and Arizona Copper by Dr. Christine Marin:

Clinton Jencks in Salt of the Earth

Clinton Jencks, labor union organizer and leader, was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado in 1918, the son of a postal
service employee with a strong labor consciousness. Jencks recalls that, as a young boy, he and his father took food
baskets to striking miners who faced evictions from their company homes. Upon graduation from high school, Jencks
worked at he John Deere company. He attended the University of Colorado where he obtained a Bachelor of Science
degree in Economics in 1941. During the World War II period, Jencks served in the Army Air Force and saw action in the Pacific as a navigator of a B-24 squadron. He earned four battle stars, seven air medals, and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

After the war, Jencks became active with the American Veterans Committee and became president of its Rocky Mountain chapter in Denver. Through his work with the AVC, Jencks devoted himself to veterans’ issues, such as fair housing, employment, and health care, and sought to bring an end to racial and ethnic discrimination. It was also during this time that Jencks found work as an acid plant operator in the American Smelting and Refining Globe Smelter at Denver, and became an active member of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Local 557, the IUMMSW. In 1947, the union hired Jencks as their business agent and sent him to Bayard, New Mexico to work with the Amalgamated Bayard District Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, Local 890, a predominately Mexican American union. For some years, Local 890 struggled to overcome issues such as job and wage discrimination and unsafe working conditions at the Empire Zinc Company in Hanover, New Mexico, a subsidiary of the New Jersey Zinc Company. In 1950, Jencks helped Local 890 stage a fifteenth-month strike against Empire Zinc. In early 1951, Jencks was elected president of Local 890. During the strike and at a picket line at the mine’s entrance, Jencks and other strikers were arrested by local law enforcement authorities on June 12, 1951. He was jailed and placed in solitary confinement for a period of sixteen months.

After his release, Jencks encountered Paul Jerrico, a Hollywood screenwriter who had worked at the Howard Hughes
RKO studio. Jarrico had recently been blacklisted by Hollywood for refusing to reveal his alleged ties to the Communist Party and for not revealing the names of others who were also suspect of being party members. Jarrico was vacationing in San Cristobal, New Mexico and was looking for some story ideas for new film projects. Jencks related to Jarrico the events of the Empire Zinc strike and the plight of Mexican American miners and their families who struggled for their civil rights in a company town. Jarrico found the story appealing, and he contacted Hollywood friends to help him produce it independently. He also asked Jencks to help him write a script based on the Empire Zinc strike. Jencks agreed, and the idea for the pro-labor film emerged. In 1953, the motion picture, Salt of the Earth, was filmed in the Silver City-Bayard, New Mexico area, and released for distribution in 1954, amid political controversy and violence. The film was later denounced on the floor of Congress for its “Communist influence,” and was later blacklisted by Hollywood and withheld for worldwide distribution. All of those associated with the film, including Clinton Jencks and his family, were accused of helping to make an un-American film which promoted Communistic ideas, and which was to be used as a propaganda tool for those “subversives” whose intent was to overthrow the American government.

On April 17, 1953, Clinton Jencks was arrested, charged and indicted with allegedly falsifying his non-Communist Taft-Hartley affidavit. The affidavit was required of all union leaders under the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, and which Jencks signed on April 28, 1950. He was accused of having lied when he denied membership in the Communist Party, and of having lied when he denied his affiliation with Communism. The International Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union rallied around his defense and mounted a massive effort to help Jencks, but to no avail. His chief accuser was Harvey Matusow, a paid FBI informant and a Communist turned-undercover agent for the FBI. The so-called “Jencks Trial” took place in El Paso, Texas in 1954. Matusow stated in the trial that Jencks had Communistic ties to the party, charges that were later proven to be untrue. In his 1955 publication, False Witness, Matusow admitted that he had lied about Jencks, and he admitted this again when Jencks appealed for a new trial. On October 26, 1955, the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans affirmed the guilty verdict against Jencks. In a 1957 landmark decision known as the “Jencks Case,” the United States Supreme Court declared Matusow’s charges invalid, and declared Jencks innocent of all charges which tied him to the Communist Party. Jencks was now a free man. In 1964, Jencks obtained his Ph.D. degree in Economics from the University of California at Berkeley. That same year, he was hired as a Professor of Economics at San Diego State University, where he taught until his retirement.

Wikipedia in their entry on Jencks tracks most of what Dr. Marin presented with some different details, but for those interested, it’s worth sharing as well:

Jencks was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado. His father was a mail carrier and his mother an active member of the Methodist Church. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1939, then moved to St. Louis, where he became active in the Interfaith Youth Council and met his future wife, Virginia Derr. Jencks served in the Air Force during World War II, and after his honorable discharge he worked at Asarco’s Globe Smelter in Denver. Jencks joined the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (called Mine and Mill or Mine-Mill), a radical union of metal miners. Impressed with the Jenckses’ commitment and charisma, Mine-Mill sent them to New Mexico in 1946.

Mine-Mill in New Mexico

The Jencks’ years in New Mexico were marked by an upsurge of local Chicano labor activism at the same time that left-wing unions were withstanding employer offensives, anticommunist legislation, and attacks by other unions. Clinton and Virginia Jencks helped consolidate a Chicano leadership of Mine-Mill Local 890 and encouraged miners’ wives to participate in union affairs.

In 1950, the same year that the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) expelled Mine-Mill for alleged communist domination, New Mexican miners went out on strike at the Empire Zinc Company in Hanover, New Mexico. This strike began over wages, benefits, and safety, but when the company secured a court injunction prohibiting miners from picketing, miners’ wives took over the picket lines. What followed was a dramatic confrontation between the union and the company, and an equally dramatic set of confrontations between husbands and wives, who were at odds over women’s activism and the threat it posed to men’s household authority. Both Clinton and Virginia Jencks supported the women. Local 890 won the strike in 1952 largely because of the women’s picket.

Salt of the Earth

Meanwhile, blacklisted Hollywood filmmakers Herbert Biberman and Paul Jarrico were looking for a story to dramatize in an independent feature film, and they happened upon the women’s picket when Jarrico and his wife Sylvia met the Jenckses at a dude ranch in northern New Mexico in the summer of 1951. Academy Award-winning screenwriter Michael Wilson wrote the script for Salt of the Earth in 1952, union families critiqued it, and Wilson changed it to reflect their sensibilities. Union men, women, and children played most of the roles in this highly unusual collaboration. Salt of the Earth, however, was heavily suppressed during and after production by anti-communists in Hollywood and Washington.

Government harassment

In October 1952, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS) called on Clinton Jencks to testify in its hearings on communism in Mine-Mill, and on April 23, 1953, during the furor over the production of Salt of the Earth, federal agents arrested him on charges of falsifying a noncommunist affidavit he had signed in 1950. He went to trial in federal court in January 1954 and was convicted, largely on the testimony of Harvey Matusow, a paid informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Matusow later recanted his story, and while his recantation failed to help Jencks win on appeal, by the time Jencks’s case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1957 the entire system of paid informants had been discredited. In Jencks v. United States, a landmark decision that later played a minor role in the Watergate prosecutions, the Court overturned Jencks’s conviction and held that defense counsel had the right to see FBI reports. After this decision, the United States Congress enacted a law directing the federal courts to provide to the defense, documents used by government employees and agents testifying in federal criminal trials. This law came to known as the Jencks Act. The usual remedy for failure to provide these documents is dismissal of the criminal charges. (See United States v. Reynolds.)

While Jencks pursued his appeal, Mine-Mill took him out of New Mexico and ultimately asked for his resignation. Jencks found himself blacklisted from employment throughout the Southwest, but in the early 1960s, he won a Woodrow Wilson fellowship to study economics at the University of California, Berkeley. He completed his doctorate and taught at San Diego State University until his retirement. He continued his social activism until his death at age 87.

Jencks had an important life of social change, and that adds to “Salt of the Earth!”

Clinton Jencks on the picket line

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One thought on “The Organizer Behind “The Salt of the Earth”

  1. What other good movies about organizing have the staff watched? It’s a good idea for a post: a list of movies and a why the group liked them or didn’t.

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