The Salt of the Earth: The Film Banned by the US Government Rides Again

Labor strife and strikes are not strangers in the strange land of the American working class.

If you were looking to get yourself in the government crosshairs during the Red Scare Fifties, try making a film (attempting against all political odds) to tell the true story of the 1951 zinc miners strike in Bayard, New Mexico. The event involved Chicano and Anglo miners and their families and you can bet your bottom union dollar, the US government did all it could in its unending abusive use of power to make sure the cinematic message would not see the public light of day. The film is based on the strike against the New Jersey Zinc Company and if you think Area 51 is a forbidden area where excessive force can and is used legally, the film “Salt of the Earth” fell victim to excessive censorship and has the distinction of being the only US film ever to be banned from the public in the United States because of its labor message in the dark political age of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunt of the Fifties. This is the one film your government did not want you to see.

Just what all went down in Bayard, New Mexico back in ’51?

The strike lasted almost a year with issues involving low wages as well as unsafe and life threatening conditions lighting the fuse. There were also issues of paid holidays and time compensated for being underground that had to be addressed. However, the film wasn’t all focused on safety conditions in the mines and economics but crossed over to the home front regarding the unsanitary housing provided by the “company” where running water was considered a luxury.

The government of the people, for the people and by the people was more than accommodating and ready to back the mine owners and the “machine” to create a political and legally impenetrable wall against the “people” who were now in fight for their rights, their workers’ rights; most of all, this was a battle for dignity and human rights.

As the strike continued, talks broke down faster than a Model T on Route 66. When it came to a head the labor atom was split unleashing a nuclear reaction of outrage by the miners, their families and across much of New Mexico itself. This culminated in a violent and explosive chain of events that let to persecution and prosecution, and shots fired!

The strike started peacefully enough. The miners would picket, their wives and girlfriends would bring them food, water, and emotional support to sustain them. This support included their children who standing on the sidelines with front row seats watching their fathers and mothers standing up to the “machine” for a cause and working class justice. A valuable lesson that would not only add to their “education” but would also lead to direct action on the part of the children against the same “machine” their parents were fighting; these same children would be jailed along with the adults.

At first the struggle was like Don Quixote charging at windmills, but eventually reality became ugly and the windmill struck back with a fury. After eight months, the company did what companies will do in such cases…they hired scab labor to cross the picket lines. Minor instances of violence occurred but the real capitalist shit hit the fan when New Jersey Zinc obtained a court order prohibiting union members from picketing on company property. The company was not prepared for what happened next as the point of no return was crossed and the wives and children of the union picketers took up the challenge and continued to march in place of the men. All was kosher, at first, but the callousness of the next act by the company is one that astounded not only the governor of the state of New Mexico, but neighbouring communities as well.

New Jersey Zinc hired and sent in goon squads and bonafide armed thugs, most of whom had prison records for violence but were legitimized in the eyes of company officials as they were deputized as law enforcers by the local sheriff! The union member had to sit on the sidelines watching the picketing until all hell broke loose. The women and children were attacked by the goon squads and deputies and when the assault ended that day…47 women and 17 children sat behind New Mexico bars as instigators of the melee. The union members’ wives who took their husbands’ place on the picket lines when a court injunction prohibited union picketing on company property.

Though women took their husbands’ place on the picket lines they were not union members remember. So, all seemed kosher until The New Jersey Zinc company, who owned the mine, sent in hired goons, scab labor and armed thugs, most with prison records for violence but were deputized as “law enforcement” by the local sheriff. In all 47 women and 17 children were jailed. Soon others joined the mine strike from neighbouring mines and other unions. The die was cast…an air of violence ensued and the fight was on.

By late summer the male strikers were back online and they sprang back into action and attacked carloads of strikebreakers at the company entrance. One car ran down three of their wives, and one of the goons fired into the strikers wounding one of the picketers. As the news spread, nearby mines also emptied and the workers at those mines joined the picket lines at the New Jersey Company mine. All the other mines were now not operating and everything was at a standstill. Eventually the strike ended in January of 1952 and the workers had some of their demands met, but not all. They did get higher wages and insurance benefits but did not give in to paid holidays or time spent underground in the mine itself.

Blacklisted Hollywood & The Salt of the Earth

In 1954, the film Salt of the Earth began production featuring the miners and their families who had participated in the strike, real people playing real people. Will Geer, (remember Grandpa Walton?) the only Hollywood actor in the film, portrayed the sheriff. Being a union sympathizer himself, he played the role to the max for impact as the “bad guy”! The writer (Michael Wilson) director (Herbert Bieberman) and producer (Paul Jarricho) of the film were members of the Blacklisted Hollywood Ten who had to set up a separate production company to get the film produced as they were banned in Hollywood at the time. By the way, actor Will Geer was also blacklisted at the time and labeled a communist. The rest of the cast were the actual strikers and their families. The lead actress, Rosaura Revuelta was deported to Mexico during filming by the INS. The film had to be completed with a double filling in for Rosaura.

Interestingly, the blacklisted writers of the film had to use fake names on the credits to avoid repercussions as they were banned from writing for films because of their leftist leanings. The director, Biberman had already served six months in prison for non-cooperation as a witness before the HUAC hearings. In other words, he refused to “name names” of “known” communists in the Hollywood community. As a side note other Hollywood types brought before the committee included Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Eleanor Roosevelt (who refused to show up defying the committee) and also Frank Sinatra among others. One of the films blacklisted writers, Michael Wilson later went on to write screenplays or co-write them for “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai”

Salt of the Earth had a very small theatrical release in 1954. In fact only 13 theatres in the country would have the courage to run it through their projectors for an audience, but had made an impression in Variety magazine who called it “A good, highly dramatic and emotion charged piece of work!” Kudos indeed from the Hollywood bible of cinema.

The U.S. government had already begun its smear campaign with the political paintbrush dipped in a dogmatic can of “red” paint. Very few theatres would touch the film as they bent to government pressure and threats from film distribution companies who threatened to penalize them by holding back release of “mainstream” films in the future if they showed “Salt.” All of this combined with other “patriotic” idiotic idiom heavy groups such as the American Legion, members of which threatened to picket theatres that dared to show it. Part of the arsenal assembled against it was from RKO chief, Howard Hughes himself, the Spruce Goose joined in the fray ganging up against “Salt” and threatened film labs to pull his and other Hollywood studio releases from being processed by their labs, thereby hitting them right in the pocketbook. The film processing was turned down by eight labs, so Biberman went to a smaller lab not in the top ten or under the Hughes thumb and submitted the film through an intermediary. For this purpose only, the film was renamed as Vaya Con Dios!

The release was small, less then enthusiastic , and the persecution persisted with the prosecutorial sword of Damocles hanging over their heads the producers decided on a drastic move…show the film in Europe to see how it would go. It was a hit! The Europeans ate it up, understood the underlying message of the film and could identify with the hard lives of the workers, but it wasn’t until the turn on, tune in, drop out Sixties that the film was “re-discovered” much as was “Reefer Madness.” It seems the Sixties opened the doors for a peek inside of the hypocrisy of democracy and two valuable cinematic landmarks were released from their “prison” of censorship in this land of the Red, White and Screwed! Today “Salt” is one of 100 films deemed by the Library of Congress to be saved for posterity!

Yet today, the film is merely a footnote of labor history, and one largely forgotten. For those of today’s generation who may view it, it is a step through the looking glass of the witch hunt politics of the Fifties. The fear and dread of red, and just how far the government did and can go in crushing dissent tossing liberty and human rights in the dumpster of corporate interests while keeping the country’s minorities and the workers under their boot. Thankfully, the participants in the making of “Salt” not to mention the strikers themselves had the courage to face off against a Goliath…and in the end…win. Thoreau said, “If the laws are unjust, the only place for a just in prison” Che said, “In every revolution, a little blood must be spilled..on both sides for it to be successful” and our own Thomas Jefferson said…”The people of the United States should not fear their government, the US government should fear its people!”

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