McCarthyism vs. Clinton Jencks, Book Review

Reviewed by Roger Keeran of ML Today

The readers of this website know of McCarthyism, but likely few know of Clinton Jencks. This is unfortunate. When the lies, cowardice, corruption, and casual racism, befoul politics like oozing industrial waste and threaten to drown everyone in a terrible cynicism, the life of Clinton Jencks stands as an antidote, a vaccination. Jencks’s dedication to social justice, his activism on behalf of labor, racial equality, and women’s liberation, his courage and steadfastness in the face of violence, persecution and defeat make him a hero for our time, for all time. He showed the value and rewards of struggle even in the most adverse of times and circumstances. He makes one proud to be a worker, proud to be a Communist, indeed proud to be an American.

Raymond Caballero, who had previously written Orozco: The Life and Death of a Mexican Revolutionary, has rescued Clinton Jencks from an undeserved obscurity and retold his story in stirring and sympathetic detail. Born in Colorado March 1, 1918, son of postal worker and Methodist school teacher, Jencks became a Communist and labor organizer among miners in the southwest. In the early 1950s,  became a target of McCarthyism, and his resistance to the relentless campaign by the FBI, Justice Department and Congressional Committees to jail him and wreck his life, lasted a decade and a half until the 1960s.

As admirable has Caballero’s book is in most respects, it is disheartening to see the author carelessly repeat some of the catechism of anticommunism whose consequences he so carefully exposes. Fortunately, his own gullibility about Soviet threats and his willingness to blame the victims for “stoking the fires,” do not seriously detract from the story he tells.

In October 1950, in the midst of McCarthyism, the Cold War, and the Korean War a hundred Mexican-American members of Local 890 of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (Mine-Mill) led by Juan Chacón went on strike against the Empire Zinc Company (EZ) in Grant County, New Mexico. The Mine-Mill organizer during the strike was the thirty-two-year old Clinton Jencks. This small strike in a dusty corner of New Mexico would become the setting for one of the most dramatic and heroic episodes in the inglorious history of McCarthyism, and it would serve as the subject of the best film ever made of an American labor conflict, “Salt of the Earth.”

The struggle of Local 890 simply to obtain for the Mexican workers of Empire Zinc the same wages and conditions enjoyed by white, Anglo mine workers unleashed the repressive fury not only of the company and its armed vigilantes and compliant local authorities and church but also the state and federal governments and national media. Jencks and Local 890 fought back with courage and ingenuity.  When, for example, a court injunction prohibited the local from picketing, the worker and their families in defiance of pervasive male chauvinism and machoism decided that the wives of strikers would maintain the picket lines, while the men took over the responsibilities for the children and household. The strike continued through the entire year of 1951 in spite of numerous court injunctions, acts of violence and attempts at mediation. In January, the company re-opened with strike breakers. On January 25, 1952, the union and company signed an agreement. The agreement produced only modest economic gains, but the workers were satisfied that they had at least thwarted the company effort to break the union.

In 1951 while the EZ strike was still underway, Virginia Jencks, Clinton’s wife, told the blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter, Paul Jarrico about the struggle, and Jarrico became convinced it was a great subject for a film.   Jarrico in turn convinced the blacklisted director, Herbert Biberman (who had just served six months in federal prison for contempt of Congress as a result of the so-called Hollywood Ten case), and the blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson to make a film of the strike. In late 1952 and early 1953, a small independent film company, the Independent Production Company (IPC), formed by blacklisted writers and directors, made the film on location.  Juan Chacón, the head of Local 890 played himself, and Clinton and Virginia Jencks played themselves. The Mexican actress, Rosaura Revueltas, played the female lead, and blacklisted actor Will Geer played the sheriff. Most of other roles were played by the Mexican members of Local 890.

Caballero describes the superhuman efforts it took to make this film. The IPC went up against the most powerful anticommunist forces in Hollywood and Washington. Roy Brewer, the head of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE), the most powerful union in Hollywood tried to deprive the filmmakers of cameramen and all other skilled employees. Walter Pigeon, head of the Screen Actors Guild, tried to get HUAC, the FBI, and CIO to stop the film. Victor Riesel, a nationally syndicated columnist accused the film crew of being nuclear saboteurs and of aiding the Soviet Union by showing discrimination against Mexican workers. Congressman Donald Jackson, a member of HUAC, said the film would be a “new weapon for Russia.”  The Immigration and Naturalization Service forced the leading actress Revueltas to leave the country before the film was done. The filmmakers were attacked by the local media and threatened by vigilantes.  Jencks was beaten.  A group of seventy businessmen gave Jencks and the film crew orders to leave the county in twelve hours “or leave in black boxes.” These and other obstacles failed to stop the film’s production.

The second half of this book deals with Jencks’s legal struggles against McCarthyism. The essence of the case against him was the government’s claim that Jencks had perjured himself by signing the non-communist affidavit, required of union officers by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Caballero tells this story with such clarity as to the evidence and the legal issues, and with such vivid detail on the backgrounds and personalities of all involved that he not only tells an exciting courtroom drama but also provides the best account ever written of McCarthyism’s effect on a single individual.

However unscrupulous,  J. Edgar Hoover, the prosecution, the court judge and the main prosecution witness, Harvey Matusow, succeeded in producing a guilty verdict for Jencks. Two years later in 1956, however, the persistence and acuity Jencks and his lawyers resulted in a landmark reversal by the Earl Warren Supreme Court. In a decision written by Felix Frankfurter, the Court found that the trial had been fatally tainted by the government’s knowing use of discredited and perjure witnesses.

Caballero provides the heartrending aftermath of the trial, the relentless effort by the FBI and rightwing groups to hound Jencks, deprive him of jobs, prevent him from getting a college education and thwart his career.  McCarthyism may have dominated Jencks’s life, but it did not end it. Jencks survived and became an acclaimed professor of economics at San Diego State University. In 2005 he died at the age of 87. His tombstone bears the word “Palomino,” the name given to him by the Mexican miners in Grant County.

McCarthyism vs. Clinton Jencks by Raymond Caballero. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019. $29.95. Pp. 306.