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Clinton Jencks, 87; Organizer Who Led Mineworkers Strike Later Taught at San Diego State - Los Angeles Times
Clinton Jencks, 87; Organizer Who Led Mineworkers Strike Later Taught at San Diego State
By Myrna Oliver, Times Staff Writer

Union organizer Clinton Jencks, who led New Mexico mineworkers in a McCarthy-era strike chronicled in the classic 1953 motion picture "Salt of the Earth," has died. He was 87.

Jencks died Dec. 14 in San Diego of natural causes, according to his daughter, Linda O'Connell.

An organizer for a progressive union, Jencks led a 15-month strike begun in 1950 near Bayard, N.M., against Empire Zinc Co. by the Amalgamated Bayard District Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Local 890. The largely Latino strikers sought pay equal to that of white workers, improved safety conditions and healthcare — goals they eventually won with great effort.

When company officials obtained an injunction barring the men from picketing, their wives and children took their place. Arrested and jailed, the families made such a noisy clatter in the jail that a harried sheriff let them go.

Hollywood could not ignore such drama, and blacklisted producer Paul Jarrico, director Herbert Biberman and screenwriter Michael Wilson decided to make a movie about the conflict.

Because of the anti-Communist scare gripping Hollywood, the filmmakers had no financial backing and little professional help. They hired blacklisted actor Will Geer and Mexican actress Rosaura Revueltas, who was deported for her participation.

Otherwise, they had the Mexican American mineworkers and their families portray themselves. Jencks, a tall blond man called "El Palomino" by the Latinos, played Frank Barnes, a character based on him, and Jencks' first wife, Virginia, played Barnes' spouse, Ruth.

The movie is one of 400 selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry, and film historian Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide says: "This film is particularly impressive considering its history — made under difficult conditions (and on a shoestring), with many nonprofessional actors, by blacklisted filmmakers."

When the movie came out, it was certainly no box office success.

Under McCarthyism pressure from the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the Screen Actors Guild and the International Alliance of Theater and Stage Employees — not to mention a boycott led by Howard Hughes — the film was shut out of all but 13 theaters across the country.

Jencks, along with Revueltas and the filmmakers, suffered for the project. The labor organizer was convicted of perjury in El Paso in 1954 and sentenced to five years in prison. The charge stemmed from a requirement under the Taft-Hartley Act that union officials sign an affidavit swearing they were not members of the Communist Party — a document Jencks had signed in 1950.

Jencks said he signed the affidavit truthfully, but the federal government accused him of lying. It was relying on testimony by Henry Matusow, an aide to Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.). Matusow, who subsequently wrote the book "False Witness," later recanted his testimony, but the Texas judge ignored his turnabout.

In 1957, however, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Jencks' conviction in a landmark opinion that established the right of criminal defendants to obtain prior statements made to authorities by witnesses against them. The government opted not to retry Jencks rather than open its FBI files containing Matusow's statements.

Despite the court victory, Jencks was dogged by rumors of association with Communists and had trouble getting or keeping jobs.

He was working as a mechanic in Albany, Calif., in 1959 when the conservative Woodrow Wilson Foundation awarded him a graduate fellowship to UC Berkeley. The foundation said it had found no evidence that Jencks was then or had ever been a Communist.

After earning a doctorate in economics, Jencks taught at San Diego State from 1964 until his retirement in 1988.

A native of Colorado Springs, Colo., he served in the Army Air Forces in the Pacific Theater throughout World War II. He later worked in a smelter near Denver, before he was sent to southern New Mexico as an organizer for the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers.

In addition to his daughter, Jencks is survived by his second wife, Muriel; three stepdaughters; and three grandchildren. His son, Clinton, died in 1995.
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