Buried Treasure

In the summer of 2005, 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, research director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the early 1960s, passed away. His home was later destroyed by the flooding, but his wife Earlene was able to salvage some of Jack’s research files. In 2006, a few survivors of the Civil Rights Movement talked about their memories of Minnis.

Judy Richardson 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. 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. And Minnis’ Chronology was invaluable in helping northern journalists understand the extent of what we were dealing with.”

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 his memoirs, Minnis said:
“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.”

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