Saturday, April 01, 2006

Jack Minnis

Last summer, while the nation’s attention was focused on the imminent loss of New Orleans to flooding, Americans were mostly unaware of another great loss within the yet-to-be-breached levees of this remarkable city six weeks earlier. Jack Minnis passed away July 14 at Ochsner Hospital. His home was later destroyed by the flooding, but his wife Earlene was able to salvage some of Jack’s research files.

Last month, a few survivors of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s talked about their memories of Minnis.

Dorie Ladner remembers meeting him and Wiley Branton in the Mississippi Delta, around 1962, and recalls being afraid something would happen to them when they left the mass meetings in places like Greenwood, because it was the land of Emmett Till, and because she knew what could happen to white people “helping those of us who could not vote, to get the right to do so.”

While others like Jim Forman, who, as executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the early 1960s, dispatched cadres of organizers, demonstrators and Freedom Riders into the most dangerous redoubts of the Deep South, became well-known, others like Jack Minnis, are, today, almost obscure. After Jim Forman’s death in January of 2005, Jack Minnis wrote the following:

"I got my first impressions of Jim Forman and SNCC, not from my own observations, but from the comments of Les Dunbar, Director of Southern Regional Council, and Wiley Branton , Director of SRC's Voter Education Project. They had hired me in the spring of '62 to appraise the results of voter registration projects to which they had contributed. Since they were distributing funds from tax exempt foundations, they were sort of edgy about whether recipients would observe the political prohibitions of such grants.

As I perceived it, their difficulty was that SNCC seemed to be operating on principles they didn't understand. In their world, individuals sought jobs with paychecks, the understanding being they'd do what they were told because the paycheck could be withheld. SNCC was composed of people who'd walked away from opportunities to make good wages, for the chance to work their asses off, under murky and dangerous conditions, for nothing that could be called a paycheck. Their puzzlement was how do you control what people do if you can't threaten to take away their livelihood? The answer, of course, was that you don't control them. It was a concept that these essentially good-hearted and well-intentioned folks were not comfortable with.

When I finally met Jim, I began to understand what their problem was. Here was a guy with the obvious administrative and executive ability to be running something big for big money. What the hell was he doing administering this organization of uncontrollables? When SRC finally fired me for unspeakable political things, Jim asked me what I was going to do. I told him I'd had a couple of feelers from D.C. think tanks and capitol hill. He said he'd do anything he could to help me get a job. I told him I didn't think the answer was in D.C. If it were, the problem would have been solved long ago.

He asked me if I'd be interested in starting a SNCC research department. I told him, sure, but we're talking serious resource expenditures if you're going to provide the research and intelligence for political organization and action. He said, simply, tell me what you need. Within a year we had a research department either the DNC or the RNC would have been proud of. He never told me how it got financed; he simply provided what I asked for. He is a remarkable man, from a remarkable time."

Judy Richardson, another survivor of the struggle against American Apartheid remarked, “Whenever I speak on campuses about SNCC, I talk about Minnis. …about SNCC's research department and Jack: He was this crusty older white guy who smoked like a fiend, looked generally unkempt, and could get research from a turnip. He was always finding information — like buried treasure — that would make all the difference.

Even before I started working on Eyes on the Prize and doing commentaries for the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, I realized that the way Minnis organized material had affected me. Documenting his analysis absolutely shaped the way I try to present information. I had to compile press information for the UCC Comm. during a rash of police brutality and racially motivated violence incidents in the mid-80s in NYC that had become so numerous that Congressman Conyers initiated U.S. House Subcommittee hearings. My work was part of a campaign by many who were organizing protests at the time.

Well, the first thing I did for the press packet was a chronology. A journalist from Newsday asked if I was journalist. I said no, that I'd learned how to do this in the Movement. What I didn't tell him was: I learned how to do this from Jack Minnis.

The Chronology of Violence in Mississippi that Minnis put together in advance of the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project is something I still show to students and teachers. What it proved was that white violence was long-standing and endemic not just the problem of a few racist rednecks . (Same holds for the endemic nature of police brutality.) And Minnis’ Chronology was invaluable in helping northern journalists understand the extent of what we were dealing with.”

Darlene Fife in Portraits From Memory: New Orleans in the Sixties wrote:"Somewhere Robert [Moses] came across the name of Jack Minnis and wrote to him care of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) office in Atlanta, Georgia. In his letter, he asked Minnis if Lyndon Johnson had any ties to the "corporate rich." Minnis must have gotten a laugh out of that one, and perhaps the naiveté appealed to him, because he sent us a complete set of his Life With Lyndon in the Great Society. I'd never seen anything like it before or since.

Minnis was writing for the civil rights workers in the field letting them know what the government was up to. His work was carefully researched and well written. It was a revelation. Minnis called our government 'fascist' not in any emotional sense but in a careful clinical definition. Each issue of Life With Lyndon was about four typewritten pages of fact after fact demonstrating that the 'great society' was of benefit to the rich and powerful. It was mimeographed and appeared once a week for about a year. Minnis was Research Director for SNCC, and when SNCC decided to become an all-black organization, he was the last white person to leave."

Gwen Patton said, “I am convinced that the National Democratic Party of Alabama, which elected the first maiden Black elected official since Reconstruction in Lowndes, Greene, Macon and Bullock Counties, never would have happened if it had not been for Jack Minnis' incredible research.”

Wally Roberts wrote, “Jack Minnis was an important influence on my career as a journalist. I first encountered his research methods as a volunteer in the Mississippi Freedom Summer project in 1964 when I read some of the research he had done for SNCC on the power structure of the South and the institutions that fostered and enforced segregation.

After that summer, I went on to Brown University where I had been accepted the previous spring, to do graduate work in history. After about six weeks, I had had it with history and felt compelled to quit and find work that would allow me to continue the type of work I had been doing in Mississippi. …Three years later I was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting.

I went on to write for magazines and other newspapers and did get a couple of other awards until I burnt out on the corporate world and went back into community organizing where I remain today. About 5 years ago l got in touch with Jack through the SNCC list and told him all this and thanked him for his work. … I owe much of my success at this work to Jack.”

In December 2003, Miriam Cohen Glickman wrote, “I first worked with SNCC in Albany, GA in the summer of 1963…The first week, while we were in training, Medgar Evers was killed in Mississippi. In less than two weeks, we and over 100 people from the Albany community were in jail. …My dad, a newspaper man, came down from Indianapolis for the trial. He broke the story nationally by telling a friend on the New York Times about it….

In the spring of 1964 I worked in the Washington D.C. SNCC office. I did some research for Jack Minnis who was in the Atlanta office. We were challenging the election of a U.S. Congressman from Mississippi. I remember pretending to be attending a college in the congressman's district and going to his office to meet him. We were trying to gauge how concerned he was about the challenge.

I also did some research on what the politics were behind Mississippi refusing some of the federal programs available for poor people. No surprise, I found someone in the federal government who was willing to leak SNCC some background information."

In Freedom Schools in Mississippi, 1964 Liz Fusco wrote: "From the carbon copies of the spring’s letters and reports I see what real apprehensions, as well as hopes, the people who dreamed of Freedom Schools had. Out of Charlie Cobb’s idea of a situation in which there would be questioning, release from rigid squelching of initiative and expression—from Charlie Cobb’s bitterness about the way the Negro has had to be silent in order to survive in white America, and his vision of the kid’s articulateness and reaching for change, meaningful change, in Mississippi—out of his seeing that kids are ready to see “the link between a rotting shack and a rotting America”—came the original plan for Freedom Schools in Mississippi.

That it could be an idea that people working desperately on voter registration and on keeping alive in the state could take seriously is perhaps evidence of the validity of Charlie Cobb’s dream: Mississippi needed more, needs more, than that all Negroes 21 and over shall have the right to vote.

The staff in Mississippi understood what Charlie was dreaming because they, too, were daring to dream that what could be done in Mississippi could be deeper, more fundamental, more far-reaching, more revolutionary than voter registration alone: more personal, and in a sense more transforming, than a political program. The decision to have Freedom Schools in Mississippi then, seems to have been a decision to enter into every phase of the lives of the people of Mississippi. It seems to have been a decision to set the people free for politics in the only way that people really can become free, and that is totally. It was an important decision for the staff to be making, and so it is not surprising that the curriculum for the proposed schools become everyone’s concern.

I understand that Louis Chaffee, Dona Moses, Mendy Samstein, and Casey Hayden as well as Noel Day, Jane Stembridge, and Jack Minnis worked on and argued about what should be taught, and what the realities of Mississippi are, and how those realities affect the kids, and how to get the kids to discover themselves as human beings. And then, I understand, Staughton Lynd came in to impose a kind of beautiful order on the torment that the curriculum was becoming—torment because it was not just curriculum: it was each person on the staff in Mississippi painfully analyzing what the realities of his world were, and asking himself, with what pain I can only sense, what right he had to let the kids of Mississippi know the truth, and what right he had had to keep it from them until now. And because of these sessions, the whole concept of what could be done in Mississippi must have changed.”

She goes on to say, “It was the asking of questions, as I see it, that made the Mississippi Summer Project different from other voter registration projects and other civil rights activities everywhere else in the South. And so it is reasonable that the transformations that occurred—and transformations did occur—out of the Freedom School experience occurred because for the first time in their lives kids were asking questions….

The experience in the Freedom School was that patterns began to be seen, and patterns were real and could be dealt with. So the kids began to see two things at once: that the North was not real escape, and the South was not some vague white monster doomed irrationally to crush them. Simultaneously, they began to discover that they themselves could take action against the injustices—the specific injustices and the condition of injustice—which kept them unhappy and impotent….

Within the Freedom Schools, especially by comparing the Freedom Schools with the regular schools, they began to become articulate about what was wrong, and the way things should be instead: Why don’t they do this at our school? Was the first question asked, and then there began to be answers, which led to further questions, such as, Why don’t our teachers register to vote, if they presume to teach us about citizenship? And why can’t our principal make his own decisions instead of having to follow the orders of the white superintendent? And why do we have no student government, or why doesn’t the administration take the existing student government seriously? This was the main question, which came also out of why there are no art classes, no language classes, why there is no equipment in the science labs, why the library is inadequate and inaccessible, why the classes are overcrowded.

The main question was WHY ARE WE NOT TAKEN SERIOUSLY?—which is of course the question that the adults were asking about the city and county and state, and the question the Freedom Democratic Party asked—and for which the party demanded an answer—at the Convention. …Tangibly, what was set in motion out of this experience of joy and pain was the thing the Mississippi staff had hoped could happen in Mississippi, but could not totally form.

In the spring before the summer, SNCC in Mississippi had tried to organize a Mississippi Student Union, bringing together kids from all over the state. And there was good response, but not on the scale the MSU was soon to achieve out of the Freedom Schools. This summer the kids began to talk boycott of the schools, but to be able to discipline their thinking about boycott so that their action would not just be acting out their frustrations but careful, considered, programmed, revolutionary meaningful action along the lines of the Montgomery bus boycott and African revolutionary action. …

Visible results of Freedom Summer include …the real probability that the Negro teachers in the regular schools—the teachers who have to sign an oath not to participate in civil rights activities or try to vote—have, this first week of school, begun to experience for the first time in their lives the challenge from a student that is not adolescent testing or insolent acting out but serious demanding that in truth there is freedom and that he will have the truth! …

The transformation of Mississippi is possible because the transformation of people has begun. And if it can happen in Mississippi, it can happen all over the South. The original hope of the Freedom School plan was that there would be about 1,000 students in the state coming to the informal discussion groups and other sessions. It turned out that by the end of the summer the number was closer to 3,000, and that the original age expectation of 16-17-18-year-olds had to be revised to include preschool children and all the way up to 70-year-old people, all anxious to learn about how to be Free. The subjects ranged from the originally anticipated Negro History, Mississippi Now, and black-white relations to include typing, foreign languages, and other forms of tutoring. In fact, these aspects of the program were so successful that the continuation of the Freedom Schools into the regular academic year will involve a full-scale program of tutorials and independent study as well as exploration in greater intensity of the problems raised in the summer sessions, and longer-range work with art, music, and drama.

To think of kids in Mississippi expressing emotion on paper with crayons and in abstract shapes rather than taking knives to each other; to think of their writing and performing plays about the Negro experience in America rather than just sitting in despairing lethargy within that experience; to think of their organizing and running all by themselves a Mississippi Student Union, whose program is not dances and fundraising but direct action to alleviate serious grievances; to think, even, of their being willing to come to school after school, day after day, when their whole association with school had been at least uncomfortable and dull and at worst tragically crippling—to think of these things is to think that a total transformation of the young people in an underdeveloped country can take place, and to dare to dream that it can happen all over the South. There are programs now, as well as dreams, and materials, and results to learn from. And it may well be that the very staffs of the Freedom Schools in Louisiana and Georgia, etc., will be the kids who were just this past summer students themselves in the Freedom Schools in Mississippi, and discovered themselves there.”

The Mississippi Power Structure, the seminal work written by Jack Minnis and the SNCC research staff, begins with the following facts:

“In 1961 Senator James O. Eastland and his family produced 5,394 bales of cotton on their plantation in Sunflower County. They sold this cotton for about $890,000. It cost them about $566,000 to produce the cotton. So they made a profit of about $324,000 on the cotton produced on their land in 1961.

A part of the cost of producing the cotton on which the Eastlands made this profit was what the Eastlands had to pay the people who actually did the work in the fields—the plowing, planting, chopping and picking. We don’t know exactly how much the Eastlands paid their workers, but we do know that hired labor in the cotton fields in the area was being paid $.25 to $.30 per hour. Let’s say the Eastlands were paying top dollar for field work—$3.00 per day for ten hours’ work. For a six day week, the worker would be paid $18.00. The cotton season runs from sometime in March to sometime in December. Thus the cotton field worker would get, at the most nine months’, or about 36 weeks’ work. On this basis his earnings from the year’s work would come to around $648.00….

Of course, this is not to say that employed whites have actually bettered themselves at the expense of Negroes. The fact is that they have been the victims of a brainwashing every bit as vicious as that practiced on Negroes. …

What he doesn’t realize is that at the same time he is subscribing to another myth—the one which says that everyone in our society has an equal opportunity to attain wealth and comfort and that those who have reached the $200,000-a-year bracket have done so on the basis of superior ability and hard work. If that white worker were not so completely brainwashed he would look at Senator Eastland’s riches and would realize that Senator Eastland never did anything to earn them except be born to a man who owned much land. And if he looked a bit further he would see that Senator Eastland’s father obtained that land in the same way….

It is the fear that the white worker will eventually see this reality which haunts the nights of the planters and industrialists who are presently amassing great fortunes from the work of Mississippi people, black and white…. This is a pattern which has been going on ever since the first factory was built in Mississippi.”

In Part Two of The Mississippi Power Structure, Minnis and staff wrote:

“Electric power and finance capital form the keystone of industrialization, with which Mississippi is most concerned today. Mississippi Power and Light is the largest producer of electric power in Mississippi. Electric power is fundamental to commerce and industry. Deposit Guaranty Bank and Trust Company of Jackson and the First National Bank of Jackson are the two largest banks in the state of Mississippi. You cannot do business in the State without dealing, directly or indirectly, with one of the two banks.

The White Citizens’ Council, through its connections in political and economic structures dominates the prevailing social policies throughout the state. We will show that electric power and finance capital play a leading role in the White Citizens’ Council of Mississippi.

The overwhelmingly dominant political machinery in Mississippi is the Mississippi Democratic Party. We will show that electric power, finance capital and the White Citizens’ Council dominate the Democratic Party….

In the North, White Citizens’ Council supporters may talk about States Rights and Constitutional government. But in Mississippi it sounds much different. And its main purposes are to prevent Negroes from voting, to maintain white supremacy and racial segregation in all phases of life, and to squash any semblance of Negro or Negro and white organization which is concerned with making changes in the Mississippi pattern of life. The White Citizens’ Councils’ principal techniques are economic intimidation and political control of the state. …

How does the Citizens’ Council operate? A voter registration drive and boycott of white merchants in Canton this year was met with large numbers of arrests of civil rights workers and local citizens and with economic reprisals against Canton’s Negro residents. The State Senator and two State Representatives from Madison County (in which Canton is located) are White Citizens’ Council members. They sponsored bills making the distribution of literature concerning the boycott a crime. …The Canton Citizens’ Council distributed an open letter to whites in Canton, calling for their support against Negro efforts to change their way of life. Here are excerpts from that letter:

Dear Fellow White Citizens: . . . THE WHITE CITIZENS OF CANTON MUST BE UNIFIED IN ORDER TO SAVE CANTON FROM MASS CONFUSION LEADING TO RACE MIXING. Organization is the key to victory! The Canton Citizens Council is the gathering place for those white men and women who are determined to keep the white people in all governmental positions and in complete control of our way of life. . . . Thank you for your support and continued effort to keep Canton, Madison County and Mississippi in the hands of white men and women.

Sincerely, Gus Noble

We have seen some of the approaches of the White Citizens’ Councils. Now let’s look at the position of the Mississippi Democratic Party.

The Mississippi Democratic Party dominates the politics of Mississippi. The Republicans have only one member in the State Legislature and none in the Executive Branch or among the Congressional and Senatorial delegations. And the White Citizens’ Councils dominate the Mississippi Democratic Party. First let’s look at the platform of the Mississippi Democratic Party, adopted in Convention, June 30, 1960:

“We believe in the segregation of the races and are unalterably opposed to repeal or modification of the segregation laws of this State, and we condemn integration and the practice of non-segregation. We unalterably oppose any and all efforts to repeal the miscegenation laws. We believe in the doctrine of interposition as defined in the appropriate resolution adopted by the Legislature of the State of Mississippi at its regular session of 1956. . . . We believe in the separation of the races in the universities and colleges, in the public schools, in public transportation, in public parks, in public playgrounds, and in all spheres of activity where experience has shown that it is for the best interest of both races that such separation be observed.”

More recently, Jack Minnis and his colleagues from forty years ago submitted an amicus brief before the Supreme Court of the United States in support of affirmative action. This is what it said:

“[We are] 200 veterans of the Southern Civil Rights Movement, the epic struggle of the 1950s and 1960s to free the United States of segregation and racial discrimination. Amici include family members of leaders and activists who were murdered in the course of the struggle to admit the African-American people to full and unfettered participation in American society.

We are not an organization, but are individuals among the many, many thousands who were part of the movement to create a free and just society in the South and throughout America. We include the survivors of Martin Luther King, Jr., Vernon Dahmer, Herbert Lee, Louis Allen, Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman; include Freedom Riders who were bloodied and nearly killed when asegregationist mob attacked and burned an interstate bus in Anniston, Alabama; include civil rights workers who were battered, beaten and jailed when they tried to organize ordemonstrate for voting rights; include one of the four young men who launched the sit-in movement at a lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. in 1960; native white Southerners whowere ostracized for supporting civil rights; leaders who organized the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project; Northern students who were threatened with death when they joined the struggle for a summer; and African American activists and leaders who battled for democratic rights for decades.

We have joined here to try to make our voices heard, so we need never again witness the lives of gifted children and young adults of color blighted by the denial of opportunity.We hope never again to bear the pain of having to explain to them that even though they could benefit from higher education, the circumstances of their lives will effectively exclude them. We respectfully submit this Friend-of-the-Court Brief in order to warn the Court of the grave threat that the attack on affirmative action poses to the enormous (if imperfect) progress made as a result of the great freedom struggle of the 1950s and 1960s….

By destroying the Jim Crow system of state-enforced segregation, the civil rights movement shattered many of the legal barriers to participation and access. But as the decade of noncompliance following Brown v. Board of Education had shown, establishing legal rights is not the same thing as effective enforcement and exercise of those rights.

Resistance to the law and to integration was fierce, and Amici know from personal experience the bitter cost of challenging the Southern system of white supremacy. Many Americans gave their lives in the struggle. Law enforcement officials and state-sanctioned mobs beat thousands of individuals and committed other acts of fearful violence.

Hundreds of churches and homes were dynamited or torched by racist terrorists. And an extraordinary number of individuals lost their jobs, were evicted from their homes and farms, saw their children reviled in school, and suffered other hardship because they fought for the unimpeded exercise of rights that Federal Courts had said African American people possessed.

When their struggle succeeded in dismantling the state-mandated segregation system, the civil rights movement, individual litigants, the legal profession and the courts faced a host of other barriers to equal access to education for African Americans….Affirmative steps were required if the sacrifices of the civil rights movement were to have meaning for day to day life, beyond the elimination of separate drinking fountains in Southern court houses.

If the fruits of the civil rights struggle were to include changing the role of the African American people in our society, from hewers and carriers to full participants, then positive plans had to be put in place to reach these goals. Otherwise, African Americans would remain liberated in theory but constrained in fact by the cumulative effects of past and current bias and subordination….

As has repeatedly been shown, and contrary to impressions created by affirmative action foes, it is not an advantage in seeking employment in America to be identifiably African American. (See, most recently, a Yale study showing that resumes submitted under “white-sounding” names were 50% more likely to elicit calls for interviews than the identical resumes submitted under “black-sounding” names.)

Discrimination, de facto and de jure, in education, housing and employment continues to burden African American parents in raising and educating their children, and bias continues to provide a comparative advantage to the white population as a whole in higher education admissions. Put more plainly, the effects of bias take most minority children out of the running for higher education, thinning out the competitive field for white children. Although young white students may not be personally part of the problem, they are personally the beneficiaries of the de facto pro-white “affirmative action” of racial discrimination, past and present.

Curiously, many appear to believe that real affirmative action has no business tampering with this situation. But historical privileges that rest on societal bias do not create a perpetual entitlement which this Court must honor….

Our multifarious American populace cannot be adequately served by attorneys and judges who are nearly all members of one racial group, and our state law schools have a compelling interest in avoiding such an outcome: The education of all law students is seriously deficient unless they are exposed to the perspectives and experiences of individuals from diverse backgrounds. And the legal profession as a whole cannot claim to be equipped to represent, communicate effectively with, or adjudicate cases involving the members of a diverse nation, if the profession includes few attorneys or judges who have experienced society from other perspectives. It is imperative that the legal profession include individuals with insights and orientations that have been shaped by their life experiences as members of groups with different histories and experiences.

Despite the progress of the last forty years, de jure and de facto barriers to full participation by people of color in higher education, law school and the legal profession remain a stubborn fact of American life. The Court should therefore not impose legal standards that would, in practice, effectively end the policies of inclusion, and set back the progress of the last four decades, legal standards that would in fact turn us back to the time when virtually all law students, virtually all lawyers, virtually all law professors, and virtually all judges were of Caucasian descent.

Breaking the “mono-culture” within education enriches the experience of all students, and diversity ensures that the legal profession can perform its responsibilities effectively in a multiracial democracy. Law students, attorneys, judges, and citizens who come into the classrooms and courtrooms of our land seeking justice will all benefit when the faces and the minds they confront reflect the full diversity of America’s rich and varied historical and cultural experience.

The Constitution does not prohibit state-funded educational institutions from seeking to secure the educational value of a student body of diverse background and experience, as the Court held in Bakke. Nor do the abstract ideals embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment require this Court to ignore the practical impact of reversal of the Sixth Circuit’s decision – re-segregation of our nation’s elite public law schools and a dramatic reduction in the opportunity to pursue and obtain legal education for minority students.

The Fourteenth Amendment is not a roadblock on the path to a vibrant, equal American society, a multiracial democracy in which all can participate. Perhaps one or two decades from today, the legacies of racial bias and oppression may be so thoroughly extirpated that any further consideration of race in law school or university admissions will be unnecessary. That day has not yet come.

The question for today is whether this Court will permit our schools and the legal profession to move toward that day, or whether the Court will force us back in the opposite direction. Amici, who personally paid part of the price required to move this Nation away from segregation and discrimination, urge this Court to stay the course.”

[See who's carrrying on Jack's important work today: ]


Blogger pinkfem said...

Hmm, Hi ,there, I think the courts are actually paddling vigorously upstream in time to get back to the days of yore. Please, God, stop the voices in Bush's head.

5:54 PM  

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