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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 266

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This is the grave of Clint Jencks.

Born in 1918 in Colorado Springs, he graduated from the University of Colorado in Boulder. While there, he became attracted to leftist causes and embraced socialism. In fact, while a student activist, he was part of a group that attracted Eleanor Roosevelt’s attention. She managed for the group to meet with FDR in the Oval Office, where Jencks proceeded to basically shout at the president for being a sellout. This did not make FDR happy.

Anyway, Jencks graduated in 1939 and went to work for Mine, Mill after a stint as a soldier in World War II. The successor to the Western Federation of Miners, the radical miners union that played a critical role in the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World, Mine, Mill was friendly to communist organizers and worked to organize the most exploited workers in the western mines, especially Mexican-Americans, who were treated like garbage by both employers and local whites. Jencks got involved with the union while working at the ASARCO smelter in Denver; impressed by his organizing skills, the union offered him a job. Along with his wife, Virginia Darr, also a radical organizer, he was sent to southern New Mexico.

Here he worked with a Spanish-speaking workforce with no reason to trust whites. Jencks had to learn Spanish and earn the trust of the workers. He did this very effectively, clearly articulating their visions for a better future. The workers began referring to him as “El Palomino” for his efforts. I am not much of a biography reader, but James J. Lorence’s, Palomino: Clinton Jencks and Mexican-American Unionism in the American Southwest is an excellent scholarly study of a very complicated man. And one of the things I loved about this book is how it explored that despite communists’ rhetoric around women’s equality, in fact Jencks, like so many radical men, used his equally talented wife as his subordinate. In fact, as Lorence points out, even after she divorced him years later, he continued to struggle to treat women well in his personal life, political rhetoric notwithstanding. This is of course by no means limited to Jencks. One could say the same about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Cesar Chavez, and so many other powerful organizing men.

In 1950, Mine, Mill was expelled by the CIO for its communist leadership. It now faced all sorts of raids from non-communist CIO unions, political harassment, and dwindling funds. The same year, the workers Jencks organized went on strike against Empire Zinc for the awful treatment they faced. I profiled what became known as the Salt of the Earth strike here, so I won’t go over all the details again.. This incredible action mobilized miners’ wives when an injunction prohibited the workers from striking. The women held the line, despite massive discomfort from the miners themselves, unhappy to see gender roles challenged. This strike is really only known today because of the film based upon it, which stars many of the union members, as well as Jencks and Darr as the organizer and his wife. The film is really quite remarkable, not only for the film’s existence in face of such harassment, but also in its clear storytelling of the workers’ struggle and just how uncommunist it really was. When I show it in class, I ask my students, “How is this a Communist film?” And they don’t have an answer because it is just showing racial, economic, and gender discrimination. But of course in Cold War America, that was enough to be considered a communist. Yes, the film was in fact made by communists, but unless equality is nothing but communist ideology, the film is not spreading communist ideology.

In 1953, Jencks was arrested for falsifying a non-communist affidavit he had signed in 1950. He was convicted and eventually won his appeal when the key witness admitted he had lied and exposed the system of paid FBI informants deployed against leftist organizers. In fact, in the 1957, Congress passed the Jencks Act to order that defendants be allowed to see the documents by government agents during their trials, as Jencks wasn’t allowed this when he was railroaded into a conviction.

All this made Jencks somewhat famous, but it also made him poor. Mine, Mill was in collapse and eventually its remnants would merge with the United Steelworkers of America. Desperate to avoid even more trouble, Mine, Mill suspended him during the trial and he was basically blacklisted from organizing work. However, he won a Woodrow Wilson fellowship for graduate study in economics at UC-Berkeley in 1959. He then completed his PhD and became an economics professor at San Diego State for the rest of his career. He remained involved in leftist politics for the rest of his life, although not in famous roles.

I think it’s time to watch Salt of the Earth again.

Jencks died in 2005 at the age of 87. He is buried in Greenwood Memorial Park, San Diego, California. He grew up Methodist, but I assume converted to Judaism at some point. He was survived by his second wife and perhaps that explains it, but I don’t know.

If you would like this series to cover more leftist organizers of our history, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. As always, it is greatly appreciated and has allowed me to visit dozens of graves. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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