The Legacy of Clinton Jencks
Portside Date:
Author: Michael Myerson
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Monthly Review

As the child of a blacklisted set designer during the Cold War years, I was as familiar with the names of the Hollywood Ten and other leftists in the movie industry as I was with stars like Danny Kaye, Gary Cooper, and Ava Gardner.

So when news came that some blacklistees, including two of the Ten, were making a movie about a strike of Mexican miners, I eagerly awaited its release. I could not know that the movie, Salt of the Earth, would itself be blacklisted by the Hollywood studios that had a near-monopoly on distribution.

McCarthyism vs. Clinton Jencks
By Raymond Caballero
University of Oklahoma Press; 322 pages
August 22, 2019
Paperback:   $29.95
ISBN-10: 0806163976
ISBN-13: 978-0806163970


University of Oklahoma Press

Only a single theater in Los Angeles, where virtually the entire film industry was based, risked showing it. The independently owned Vista—the oldest movie house in southern California—in the Los Feliz neighborhood, was near my junior high school. While most of the country, if they even knew of it, was unable to view Salt of the Earth, it was easily accessible to me. Lucky me.

Salt of the Earth eventually became a cult favorite, required viewing for any film buff. The movie tells the story, barely fictionalized (only the names are changed) of the 1950–51 strike against Empire Zinc (EZ) in southern New Mexico by the mainly Mexican and Mexican-American members of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Local 890.

When beatings by company thugs and the jailing of union leaders by the local sheriff fail to break the strike, EZ gets a court injunction to stop the miners from picketing and inhibiting scabs from entering the mines. So the miners’ wives take over the picketing. This is the 1950s, remember, when patriarchy ruled most U.S. families, no more so than in heavily Catholic Latino communities. Thus, the strike (and the movie) became a movement not only for workers’ rights on the job, but for women’s empowerment in the home and community life.

Nearly the entire cast was made up of Local 890 members. The movie’s male lead was played by 890 president Juan Chacón, a militant leftist. Mexican movie star Rosaura Revueltas was hired as the female lead, playing Chacón’s wife and reluctant strike leader. As with the strike itself, the film’s cast was nearly all Mexican and Mexican-American. Two exceptions were the film and stage character actor (and blacklistee) Will Geer, playing the strike-busting sheriff, and a handsome blonde man who might have been confused for a Hollywood star but was actually Mine Mill organizer Clinton Jencks. It was striking (no pun intended) to see this fair-haired pale-skinned man in meetings and jail alongside the other union members who were without exception dark-skinned and brunette.

The Anglo from Central Casting

Jencks was easy to remember. Good thing, because, several years later when I was an undergraduate at University of California, Berkeley, I immediately recognized Jencks, who, twenty-two years my senior, had just entered Berkeley as a doctoral candidate in economics. I introduced myself and struck up a friendship. Turns out that Michael Tigar did also. Tigar, one of my closest co-conspirators in the Berkeley student movement, has since become a renowned international human rights attorney. He has also written the foreword to Raymond Caballero’s study, McCarthyism vs. Clinton Jencks, which exhaustively details how the federal government brought the entire weight of its repressive apparatus down on the heads of Jencks, his family, and his union sisters and brothers. To boot, Caballero tells the story of the making of Salt of the Earth.

I am grateful to Caballero—as will be any reader—for telling the Clinton Jencks story. Clint, modest as he was, was reluctant to talk about himself. Born in 1918 in Colorado Springs, he could count his antecedents back to colonial Massachusetts, with a long line of Christian missionaries on the family tree. Raised as a devout Christian in a mining community, these two influences pretty much dictated his life’s journey.

In early adulthood, however, he had trouble reconciling the church’s preaching about “all God’s children” when their pews were strictly segregated. A good student, Jencks’s reading progressed from mining history to socialism and Eugene V. Debs. At the University of Colorado, he became chair of the campus chapter of the American Student Union and soon joined the Young Communist League.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Clint enlisted in the air force, serving as lead navigator on a B-24 crew in the Pacific. He was tasked with dropping mines in Japanese-held harbors from Guam to Okinawa, doing so at altitudes as low as one hundred feet, making the planes vulnerable to ground and aircraft fire. Their commanding officer warned that they would likely not survive their mission. In 1945, having flown forty missions as lead navigator, Clint was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and six air medals, the highest decoration short of a Congressional Medal of Honor.

After the war, he and Virginia, his wife and closest comrade, moved to Denver. Clint hoped to get a job as an airline pilot but there were few jobs. After unsatisfactory work as a baggage handler and then a flight controller, he left for work in a smelting company. He loved being among working people and joined the Mine Mill union, quickly becoming a shop steward. He had severed his Communist Party membership when he joined the armed forces, but now rejoined the party.

Mine Mill was founded in 1893 as the Western Federation of Miners. It affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1911, but was expelled twenty-five years later when it helped create the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). In 1947, Mine Mill had 100,000 members. The union knew they had a prize in Clint Jencks and they asked him and Virginia to relocate to Grant County, New Mexico, home to several large gold and lead mining operations. He would become lead organizer for several Mine Mill locals, whose membership was nearly all Mexican-American.

Grant County was strictly segregated—a Jim Crow structure of separate schools, theaters, and restaurants but aimed at Mexican Americans. On work sites, changing rooms and restrooms were segregated. Pay lines were segregated and, of course, Mexican Americans who worked the most difficult jobs received lower pay. The companies’ racism was not simply a ploy to keep white workers divided against Mexican Americans but, by enforcing separate pay scales, it created additional profits. Oppressed not only as workers but as Mexicans, the workers viewed their economic and civil rights as indivisible. A number of local leaders were also Communist Party members, because they saw the party as a militant fighter against racism.

Mexican labor in the southwest had a long history of militancy from the Cripple Creek strike at the turn of the century to the infamous 1914 Ludlow, Colorado, coal miners’ strike where mine owner John D. Rockefeller sent in gun thugs and National Guardsmen to shoot down striking workers, their wives, and their children. Nearly half of the twenty-one victims of the massacre were Mexican-American.

In the postwar period, with the Cold War intensifying, U.S. corporations were able to use anti-communist hysteria to attack the labor movement. It was no secret that communists and other leftists played leading roles in building industrial unionism in the 1930s. When United Mineworkers Union president John L. Lewis, himself an anti-communist, set out to build the CIO, he asked the Communist Party for help, knowing their cadres were among the most militant and self-sacrificing organizers he could find. Ten years later, the corporations would use the Red Scare to tame the newly powerful postwar labor movement.

In this regard, the corporations had help not just from the anti-communist leadership of the AFL but also from anti-communist CIO leaders who were happy to essentially broker a labor peace over the “corpses” of many of its best fighters. The CIO abandoned Operation Dixie, which was to organize Southern workers, black and white, spearheaded by those same militant cadres who organized the autoworkers in Michigan and the steelworkers in Ohio. To this day, those decisions have taken a heavy toll on not only the labor movement but the entirety of U.S. politics.

When Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, it largely eviscerated the Wagner Act of 1935 that had given workers the right to strike and bargain collectively, and had established the National Labor Relations Act. Taft-Hartley placed restrictions on the right to strike, gave the president the right to enjoin strikes in cases of “national emergency,” allowed states to enact right-to-work laws, and, not incidentally, made it illegal for communists to hold office in unions.

At its convention following the passage of Taft-Hartley, the CIO launched a purge of so-called communist-dominated unions. Ten such unions were charged, representing hundreds of thousands of communications, tobacco, agricultural, fishing, leather, longshore, mine, maritime, furniture, office, and public workers. By the time the bloodbath was over, all but two of the unions were either destroyed or forced to merge with other CIO unions under anti-communist leadership. Among the latter was Mine Mill, which eventually became part of the United Steelworkers of America. The two unions that survived by leaving the CIO and remain intact today (but much smaller) are the United Electrical Workers and the west coast International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union. Other left-led unions across the country also suffered serious losses, from the Hollywood craft unions, devastated by the combined might of the studio bosses and their mob-run union allies, to the New York teachers, thousands of whom were blacklisted by loyalty oaths.

In 1950, the Cold War abroad had turned hot. In Korea, U.S. soldiers now fought North Korean regulars and South Korean guerrillas, with the Chinese about to enter the war. A year earlier, a lynch mob encouraged by state police attacked an outdoor concert in Peekskill, New York, with the aim of killing Paul Robeson, who headlined the concert together with Pete Seeger. The Red Scare at home reached a fever pitch with the arrests of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as so-called atomic spies. Untold thousands of communist and other leftist workers were fired and blacklisted from their professions, some were deported, and two faced the death penalty.

That same year, with Mine Mill expelled from the CIO, the government declared open season on its leaders. This was when Clint and Virginia Jencks returned to Grant County. The EZ contract was about to expire. Negotiations with the union broke down when the company walked out after having refused to bargain with Local 890. The miners were asking for a raise of fifteen cents per hour and six paid holidays. EZ offered a five-cent raise but only if the workers agreed to a forty-eight-hour work week in place of their current forty hours. The members voted overwhelmingly to strike.

This was the labor battle portrayed in Salt of the Earth, with its lockouts; beatings of members (including Clint and Virginia) by hired thugs, local vigilantes, and sheriff’s deputies; mass jailings; and the miners’ wives taking over the picket lines to fight the scabs, tear gas, and injunctions.

As Caballero writes, “Grant County’s establishment had special scorn for Jencks, the outside Anglo agitator. The Anglo power structure claimed that Jencks was upsetting Mexicans who, they implied, had been previously content with their lot as second-class citizens.” The nearly identical language was used a few years later against the southern civil rights movement.

While in the Grant County Jail, Clint was subpoenaed to appear in Salt Lake City before a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security, the subject of which was “Communist Domination of Union Officials in a Vital Defense Industry.” The committee was chaired by Nevada Senator Pat McCarran, who had authored a bill setting up the Subversive Activities Control Board requiring the Communist Party, several dozen “Communist action groups,” and their members to register with the Attorney General, and making them subject to expulsion from the country (in case of immigrants) and even potential imprisonment in detention camps. (The bill was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court fifteen years later.) The Mexican mineworkers and Clinton Jencks were apparently threatening national security and endangering our troops in Korea. A year earlier, in the interests of protecting Mine Mill from the CIO purge and government repression, Clint again ended his membership in the Communist Party.

At the hearing, Clint declined to answer any questions about his political associations or beliefs, but the Senate subcommittee had its friendly witness, Harvey Matusow. Matusow was one of a half-dozen professional witnesses employed by the Senate committee and House Un-American Activities Committee, their clones established in a number of states, and the Justice Department in its trials of communists and others under the Smith and McCarren Acts. Matusow and his cohort were on permanent standby to fly around the country, visiting hearing rooms and court houses to testify that this or that person was indeed a Communist Party member. Not only was the person named thereby labeled a traitor in the news media and the Congressional Record, but they could be subject to imprisonment under the McCarran Act. Matusow testified that Clint was a Communist Party member and had told Matusow as much.

In March 1953, Richard Berresford, EZ’s personnel director, testified before Congress that the Taft-Hartley anti-communist provisions were not strong enough. He said that the Salt of the Earth crew, Mine Mill, and Clint Jencks were inciting “racial hatred” whereas previously relations between Anglos and Mexicans had been good. He urged that any union officer refusing to testify before a congressional committee or “hiding behind the Fifth Amendment,” which Jencks had called on, should be barred from the union. Moreover, companies should be prohibited from dealing with “communist-dominated” unions and any contracts between them should be nullified.

A month later, on April 30, 1953, Clint was playing with his son in the yard of their public housing home when FBI agents emerged, arrested him, and brought him before a judge in EZ-dominated Silver City, charging him with two counts of filing a false affidavit saying he was not a member of the Communist Party. He had left the party when he signed the affidavit, an inconvenient fact the government chose to ignore in its prosecution (and persecution) of Clint and Virginia.

It will surprise no reader familiar with the 1950s to learn that the trial in El Paso, Texas, included a jury—and even a jury pool—that virtually excluded women, Mexican Americans, other minorities, and workers; that the judge was a pro-business bigot; and that the news media had already convicted Clint before jury selection even began. Nor that the prosecution’s “evidence” consisted entirely of testimony from folks on the payroll of the mining industry, including law enforcement officers and professional informers, most notably Matusow.

In the pretrial hearings, the Jencks’ defense team needed to know the facts on which the prosecution intended to prove guilt—the testimony and exhibits the government intended to use. The judge denied the motion for a Bill of Particulars, leaving Clint and his attorneys with no idea how to defend him from the government’s charges. When the trial opened, Jencks’s attorneys asked to see Matusow’s FBI reports as they related to the defendant, convinced the informer was a fabulist whose reports differed from his testimony. The judge denied these requests in what became the single most important moment in the trial. Even though the trial went on for weeks—the longest trial in El Paso of a single defendant up to that time– the jury, charged with electing a foreman, reading the indictment, reviewing the testimony and exhibits, deliberating, and taking a vote, took all of twenty minutes to return with a guilty verdict. Clint was sentenced to two five-year terms to be served concurrently.

As Jencks’s attorneys began their appeal of the conviction, Matusow’s credibility began to collapse. In an earlier, unrelated hearing, he claimed he had lists of Communist Party members at the New York Times and Time magazine. Now under oath, the object of a lawsuit, he acknowledged that he had no knowledge of Communists at the two publications. He had recently gotten divorced and his personal life was falling apart. Undergoing something of a religious conversion, Matusow arranged to publish a full confession, False Witness, in which he admitted to being a serial perjurer, encouraged to do so by Senator Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn.

Jencks—like other victims of Matusow’s lies—appealed for a new trial. At the hearing on the motion, also in El Paso, Clint’s attorneys called Matusow as their first witness. On the stand, he testified that prior to Jencks’s trial he had told the FBI he no longer wished to testify on communist matters, that he had never told the FBI that Clint was a communist, and that his testimony at the trial was a lie.

Repeating the defense request at trial, Clint’s attorneys again demanded the government produce all reports and materials given by Matusow to the FBI. The court rejected the request and the judge (who had presided at the original trial) again refused to review the files for himself. Instead, the judge held Matusow in contempt for obstruction of justice and unsurprisingly denied Jencks a new trial.

The defense next went to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to ask for a new trial both on the grounds of the prosecution witnesses’ perjured testimony and the trial court’s refusal to produce the witnesses’ statements to the FBI to determine inconsistencies that could be brought out during cross-examination. The appellate court denied the motion, leaving the U.S. Supreme Court as Clint’s last chance.

This was now 1956, three years after Jencks was arrested. Times were changing. Salt of Earth was a thing for the film archives. The Korean War was long over. McCarthy had been humiliated in his confrontation with the U.S. Army. Most importantly, the Supreme Court was now led by Earl Warren. When President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Warren, it was seen as a conventional choice. Warren had been a law-and-order District Attorney of California’s Alameda County (Oakland), then governor of the state and GOP vice-presidential running mate of Thomas Dewey in the 1948 elections. But in his first term as Chief Justice, Warren led the court in ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that public-school segregation was unconstitutional, that “separate but equal” was oxymoronic. (Eisenhower, a Republican, had also reportedly appointed William Brennan, a New Jersey Democrat, because he wanted a Catholic on the Court.)

The Supreme Court shredded the case against Jencks. Justice Hugo Black’s concerns were typical: “You can’t retain evidence and send a man to jail on it because it’s too confidential. If the government wants to keep the evidence confidential, they should try the case without the evidence.” Brennan was clear. The defense was entitled to any statement made by a witness that related to the testimony given.

Caballero summarizes the Jencks decision thus: “If the government refused to produce a witness statement, the case would be dismissed. In so ruling, the courts held that the privilege the government had in keeping its records confidential gave way whenever it brought a prosecution. The government could no longer prosecute and then withhold evidence that was relevant and useful to the defense.”

The Jencks decision, issued at the end of the Court’s term in June 1957, together with ten other decisions—all against the government, including reversing the conviction of Communist Party leaders under the Smith Act—“irreparably crippled the witch hunt,” wrote I. F. Stone.

Within months, Congress codified into law the results of the Supreme Court decision. As Caballero notes, “statements by a witness that were reduced to writing and that related to the witnesses’ testimony would be produced after the defense made a demand,” under what came to be known as the Jencks Act. “Any statements withheld by the government would be sealed and included in the record. If the government elected not to comply, the court could strike the witness’s testimony or declare a mistrial.” While the Jencks Act pertained to federal prosecutions, most states adopted versions of it.

With the Court’s Jencks decision and with the Jencks Act now the law of the land, the government chose the wiser option of dropping the prosecution rather than going to a retrial. Clint and Virginia Jencks could now breathe easier, the end of their years-long persecution accompanying the rewriting of judicial and legislative history. Future generations of readers of crime fiction and viewers of televised courtroom dramas became familiar with “discovery” motions—at the core of cross-examination—based in large part on the Jencks Act.

Caballero has done a masterful, excellently researched job of conveying this important piece of twentieth-century U.S. history and of telling the story of Clint and Virginia Jencks, mostly unknown U.S. heroes.

Placing their story into a larger context would have fortified the book beyond its already considerable strengths. Unfortunately, the persecution of Clint Jencks and the devastation of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers and its largely Mexican-American membership were not stand-alone stories. The postwar Red Scare wrecked tens of thousands of lives, forced thousands of U.S. progressives to leave the country, and pushed others to suicide. The drive of the federal government in the service of corporate America (aided in no small part by opportunist labor leadership) to remove the most militant trade unionists from the labor movement essentially defanged that movement for generations, down to the present day.

[Michael Myerson is an author and lifelong activist for civil rights, peace, and labor rights. He lives in the Hudson Valley.]

2020Volume 71, Issue 11 (April 2020)

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