December 19, 1926 – July 14, 2005
Born in Blackwell, Oklahoma
SNCC had one of the most efficient research departments in the Civil Rights Movement. Its creator and director was Jack Minnis, a “crusty older white guy who smoked like a fiend, looked generally unkempt, and could get research from a turnip,” as SNCC staff member Judy Richardson remembered him. Minnis used his researching skills to give SNCC field organizers key information they needed to organize local communities.
Before SNCC, Minnis was working as a lawyer for the Southern Regional Council (SRC). He was tasked to review SNCC’s work with the 1962 Voter Education Project, which helped finance much of the organization’s work in the Deep South. But he left SRC for what he later called “justifiable political reasons.” Shortly after, SNCC’s executive director, Jim Forman, asked Minnis to start a SNCC research department, which was greatly needed to feed information to the organization’s expanding projects in the South. “Within a year,” Minnis recalled, “we had a research department either the DNC or RNC would have been proud of.”
Minnis was boldly critical of the political and economic systems that bolstered racial inequality. And he didn’t limit his criticism to the South. Stokely Carmichael remembered that Minnis’ research department uncovered “the complex network of ownership” of the plantations in the Deep South. “One was owned by the corporation supplying electricity to Boston, Massachusetts,” explained Carmichael. “The majority stockholder of another was Her Majesty, the Queen [of England].”
Minnis’ research was instrumental in supporting SNCC’s political experiments, like the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) challenge in 1964. Minnis compiled and published a volume detailing the murders, lynchings, assaults, and other physical violence against civil rights workers in Mississippi between 1961 and 1964. According to Judy Richardson, the list “proved that white violence was long-standing and endemic not just the problem of a few racist rednecks.” After the MFDP was denied seating at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Minnis circulated a weekly newspaper called Life With Lyndon in the Great Society, which connected the Johnson Administration with corporate interests.
Minnis’ dedication to discovery paid off in a big way for SNCC’s project in Lowndes County, Alabama. Courtland Cox recalled, “Jack Minnis … looked into the law and raised the issue of putting together in each county a [political] party that would be responsible for carrying out the wishes of the people.” He found an obscure Reconstruction-era law that made it possible for discontented citizens to form an independent political party on the county-level. “I asked Jack Minnis to check out the laws on independent parties in Alabama,” recollected Carmichael, who headed up SNCC’s project in Lowndes. “Jack was good. In less than a week he called back,” giving Carmichael the legal go-ahead to organize an independent Black political party in Lowndes. By the following fall, local Black people were running their own candidates for various county positions including sheriff, tax assessor, and school board members.
Despite his gruff exterior, Minnis endeared himself to the young people of SNCC. “Jack took me under his wing,” SNCC staffer Scott Smith remembered, “and always answered my inquiries with patience.” Years later, Bruce Hartford, a movement worker from the Bay area, reflected on Minnis’ role in the Movement: “Jack had the facts and he [laid] them out for all to see, and that did more to radicalize me than any fiery speech.”
Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).
Cheryl Greenberg, ed., A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998).
Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (New York: New York University Press, 2009).
In Memory of Jack Minnis, 2005, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website.