It was the evening of March 8, 1971. As Americans settled in to watch a prizefight on TV, a group of young activists broke into an FBI office in Media and removed 1,000 files detailing some of the U.S. government’s most closely held secrets.
John Raines, a teacher and cleric who believed the FBI had illegally spied on civil rights leaders and antiwar protesters, drove the getaway car. He and wife Bonnie transferred four suitcases of papers into his station wagon, and off they went to a safe house in the suburbs.
“Right away, early on the morning of March 9, we spread these files out on tables and began to sort them, always wearing gloves, of course,” Mr. Raines told the Temple News in 2014. “It didn’t take us long to discover we had not acted in vain.”
Mr. Raines, 84, of Philadelphia, a cleric, teacher and activist whose efforts to peel back the secrecy shrouding J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI brought him acclaim only reluctantly — 43 years after the break-in — died Sunday, Nov. 12, of congestive heart failure at home. Mr. Raines had logged a half-century career as professor of social ethics in Temple University’s Religion Department.
The stolen files proved what many on the left guessed — that agents had carried out a campaign to spy on political organizers, civil rights activists, and suspected Communists, and had even tried to blackmail the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“It looks like we’re terribly reckless people,” Mr. Raines told the New York Times in January 2014. “But there was absolutely no one in Washington — senators, congressmen, even the president — who dared hold J. Edgar Hoover to accountability.”
The group’s findings were disclosed in the Washington Post by writer Betty Medsger two weeks after the burglary and more fully in her 2014 book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI. The book provided the material for 1971, a 2015 documentary by Johanna Hamilton.
Most important, the disclosures prompted formation of the Church Committee, a panel led by Sen. Frank Church (D., Idaho), which investigated abuses in the intelligence community and overhauled laws governing the FBI and other agencies.
Medsger said the Raineses were careful, “incredible citizens” who believed it was worth their freedom to prove the intelligence community’s alleged abuses. “As long as I worked with them,” she said, “I never stopped being amazed at the depth of their courage.”
Born in Minneapolis, Mr. Raines came from a family of clerics. His father was a Methodist bishop, and the family lived in a seven-bedroom mansion. He graduated from Shortridge High School in Indianapolis and Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., and earned a master’s in divinity and a doctorate in theology from Union Theological Seminary in New York.
Mr. Raines was ordained a minister in the United Methodist Church and served a church in Setauket, N.Y., from 1959 to 1961, but found himself drawn to social activism after he was contacted by a civil rights group to join the 1961 Freedom Riders. The activists rode buses into the South protesting the failure of some states to integrate public buses and allow black residents register to vote, as required by law.
He was arrested and jailed in Little Rock. “When I saw how power could be manipulated and abused in this way,” he recalled in a 2015 Philadelphia Magazine article, “I was forever changed.”
In 1962 and 1963, Mr. Raines was one of the organizers of the campaign by banks to disinvest in South Africa because of apartheid. In 1964, he helped organize a vigil by seminarians to break a Senate filibuster against the Voting Rights Act.
In 1965, he was arrested and jailed in Georgia while trying to register black voters, although no formal charges were filed.
At the time of the break-in, Mr. Raines and his wife had three small children, and he was a respected teacher. “I don’t think he ever stopped being a cleric,” said the Rev. John McNamee, pastor at St. Malachy Church in North Philadelphia. “What I would say is, in his ministry John Raines embraced all the areas that he thought could be considered the care of souls — by his personal ministry, his academic students, and the search for justice and peace.”
Mr. Raines and his coconspirators eluded the FBI’s dragnet to arrest them by never revealing their role in the burglary until 2014, after Medsger’s book appeared. By then, the political and social climate had changed, and the statute of limitations on the offense had long run out.
A star in the religion department at Temple, Mr. Raines worked hard to mentor and advise students. “His classes were always in demand and overenrolled,” his wife said. “He guided graduate students from all parts of the world to rewarding and contributing careers in teaching and nonprofit careers.”
In his leisure time, Mr. Raines hiked in the West, played competitive tennis on grass at Germantown Cricket Club, and rode horses in Fairmount Park. He spent summers at a family cottage in Glen Lake, Mich., where he enjoyed sailing. He supported the Philadelphia Orchestra and attended meetings of the Franklin Inn Club at which current events were discussed.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Raines is survived by children Lindsley, Mark, Nathan, and Mary; seven grandchildren; and a brother.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 2, at Christ Church Philadelphia, 20 N. American St. Burial is private.
Memorial donations may be made to the Southern Law Poverty Center via www.splcenter.org or the ACLU via www.aclu.org.