The saving grace was our political work. At the suggestion of Barnie Conal we looked up Clint and Virginia Jencks. Clint had been an organizer for the Mine, Mill and Smelters union, one of the few American unions that had not expelled its Communist members despite the anti-Communist Crusade.
The CIO kicked out Mine-Mill in 1950 for refusing to shed its communist members. The Senate Internal Security Subcommittee hauled Jencks before its kangaroo court in 1952 and again in 1953. Federal agents arrested him on charges of falsifying a non-communist affidavit he signed in 1950. Harvey Matusow, a paid FBI informant, was the only witness against Jencks and he later recanted his testimony. However, while Jencks pursued his appeal, Mine-Mill took him out of New Mexico and ultimately asked him to resign.
Jencks was blacklisted. He would find a job, get hired, and a few weeks later a FBI agent would visit Clint’s new boss and tell him that Clint was a Communist. Enthusiastically or reluctantly, Clint’s new boss would fire him.
When I met Clint, he had obtained a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to study economics at UC Berkeley. Like the Communists I’d met in Paris and the lefties I’d known in New York City, Clint and Virginia were dedicated to women’s rights, racial equality, a fair shake for the working man, decent living conditions, health care for all and world peace. Personally, they were courageous, idealistic and great leaders.
You can get a glint of Clint’s leadership skills today, captured forever in a remarkable American film called Salt of the Earth. Mine-Mill sent Clint to Silver City, New Mexico right out of college. His job was to help local miners organize what became a bitter strike. When a group of blacklisted Hollywood film makers were looking for an inspiring story, the Mine-Mill strike seemed perfect.
The film is about a group of Hispanic American workers seizing control of their lives by demanding union recognition, while dealing with sexism in their own community. It is a daring message in which the community wins when the women take over the strike and the men take care of the babies and do the cooking and washing. Salt of the Earth has played all over the world. It was the first film that Vaclav Havel showed after the Czech velvet revolution.
Salt of the Earth had one screening in New York City and has never run commercially in the United States.
The film hired two professional actors, but union members, including Clint and Virginia, made up the rest of the cast. In the film Clint suggests, nudges, and defers to the membership. He takes a beating from company thugs. Virginia pushes the women to take over the picket line when the sheriff threatens their men with jail and fines.
I found it hard to whine about my state of affairs when Clint was around. He was a big bear of a man, reminding me of the Jolly Green Giant featured on boxes of frozen peas. Clint spoke slowly and thoughtfully and to the point. He had an enormous trust in the intelligence and good will of other people, particularly working people. He led by empowering others. Of all the lessons Clint taught me this was the most important for my own professional career. It’s a form of leadership that upper management usually hates.
We devoted our spare time to political activity. The main issue was nuclear war and radioactive debris in the atmosphere. Some Americans, even entire communities, were building fallout shelters where they hoped to wait out a nuclear exchange and emerge to pick up life’s threads. It seemed absurd. There weren’t going to be any meaningful threads to pick up. One of the most popular movies of 1959, On the Beach, portrayed the last days of human life on the planet.
For a short time, there was a thaw in the Cold War. Soviet Premier Khrushchev came to the United States in September of 1959 on a highly successful twelve day visit, marred only by an outburst when Disneyland denied him entrance “for security reasons”. Everyone knew it was a conscious slap in the face by the militant anti-communist, Walt Disney.
The trip ended with two days of talks at Camp David. In a joint communiqué the two leaders said “the question of general disarmament is the most important one facing the world today.” They planned a summit for Paris the following spring, after which Eisenhower and his family would travel to the Soviet Union. It seemed for a moment as if the two super-powers could peacefully coexist.
We talked a lot about civil rights. In southern states at the time, African-Americans were not allowed to sit in the same public facilities as whites. Students began challenging the law in 1957 by sitting down at lunch counters where they would wait, without being served, until the counters closed or the police arrived. In 1959 students sat-in at a Woolworth’s department store lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. It became national news. Within 2 weeks sit-ins had spread to 11 cities, led by a new organization called The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee or SNCC. Support groups quickly appeared on 21 northern college campuses, among them UC Berkeley.
There were also protests against the coming execution of Caryl Chessman, the so-called “Red Light Bandit.” Chessman had been convicted of robbing and raping several women in Southern California by stopping their cars in secluded places with a flashing red light attached to the roof of his car in an imitation of a police vehicle. Chessman denied his guilt, but world-wide demonstrations against his execution didn’t depend on his guilt or innocence. He was the first American to be condemned to death for a non-lethal crime, rape. While in prison Chessman had written four books and to many people he seemed rehabilitated. Our slogan: “The only man in the California prison system who has actually been rehabilitated and they’re going to kill him!”