For 43 years, John C. Raines, a Temple University religion professor and ordained Methodist minister, lived with an explosive secret. On March 8, 1971, he and his wife, Bonnie Raines, then the parents of three young children, had joined six other conspirators in burglarizing an FBI office in suburban Philadelphia.
The cache of documents they stole revealed a sweeping campaign of intimidation by the FBI, then led by J. Edgar Hoover, against civil rights and antiwar activists, communists and other dissenters. One now-infamous document told agents to ramp up interviews with perceived subversives "to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox."
Calling themselves the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, the burglars anonymously distributed the stolen documents to newspapers including The Washington Post. On March 24, 1971, over the objections of Attorney General John N. Mitchell, The Post became the first publication to report on the FBI surveillance. Other news accounts followed, along with public outrage, and eventually the formation of the Church Committee led by U.S. Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) that uncovered widespread abuses in the U.S. intelligence agencies.
Hundreds of FBI agents investigated the break-in but failed to identify the burglars, who, if apprehended, would have faced years in prison. Only years after the fact — long after the statute of limitations had expired — did Dr. Raines revealed his identity to Betty Medsger, the Post journalist who had broken the news of the stolen documents.
In 2014, Medsger published a book-length account of the story, "The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI." In an interview, she described the actions of Dr. Raines and his wifeas "one of the most powerful acts of resistance in the history of the country."
Her account helped make Dr. Raines, by then in the final years of his life, a hero to civil libertarians. He died Nov. 12 at his home in Philadelphia at 84. The cause was congestive heart failure, according to his wife.
Dr. Raines credited his wife with drawing him into their activism. "I was dragged along by her enthusiasm," he once told the Los Angeles Times — an account she seemed to confirm, quipping that "he had more sleepless nights" than she did. But Dr. Raines also had a long history of civil rights work.
He had participated in the Freedom Rides to challenge segregation in interstate transit and marched in Selma, Ala., in 1965, when state troopers assaulted protesters with clubs and tear gas. He was angered by Hoover's antagonism to the movement, and to the untouchable status the FBI director maintained.
"Nobody in Washington was going to hold him accountable," Dr. Raines told NPR in 2014. "It was his FBI, nobody else's."
With his wife, Dr. Raines had broken into draft board offices to disrupt the Vietnam War draft. But no act of civil disobedience was as daring as the break-in at the FBI office in Media, Pa.
The Raineses were recruited by a Haverford College physics professor, William Davidon, who knew of their protest activities. "After the chin came off the floor and we started talking about it, it seemed more and more plausible," Dr. Raines recalled.
The conspirators plotted the break-in from the Raineses' attic. Bonnie Raines, who ran a day care, managed to gain entry and survey the FBI office in advance by posing as a college student seeking information about employment opportunities. In the event of their arrest and imprisonment, the couple arranged for Dr. Raines's brother to care for their children.
"We have a double responsibility," Dr. Raines told CNN in 2014, "yes, as parents to our children, but also as citizens to the nation those children are going to live in and have children in."
The group scheduled the break-in to coincide with the boxing match in which Joe Frazier would defeat Muhammad Ali — astutely predicting that the momentous sporting event would distract neighbors of the FBI office as well as police. Without much trouble, they used a crowbar to break in, then carried out more than 1,000 files in suitcases. Dr. Raines drove the getaway car to a Quaker farm, where they donned gloves and began combing through the documents.
"Within an hour, we knew we hit the jackpot," Dr. Raines recalled.
The burglars photocopied the documents and sent them to Sen. George S. McGovern (D-S.D.) and Rep. Parren J. Mitchell (D-Md.), as well as to reporters at The Post, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. Only The Post immediately published.
The documents contained early evidence of COINTELPRO, short for Counterintelligence Program, which, the FBI later acknowledged, was "rightfully criticized by Congress and the American people for abridging First Amendment rights."
Among other revelations, the materials showed that the FBI had systematically surveilled and harassed African Americans, particularly civil rights activists. In one instance, it had attempted to blackmail the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. by threatening to reveal his extramarital affairs if he did not commit suicide before collecting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
The Church Committee report, issued in 1976, found that "too many people have been spied upon by too many government agencies and too much information has been collected."
The extent of the abuses confirmed to Dr. Raines the rightness of what he and his collaborators had done. But years later, reviewing Medsger's book in the New York Times, history professor David Oshinsky was among those who questioned the burglars' methods.
They "committed a serious felony on the suspicion that a government bureau was engaging in nefarious activities; they had no evidence in hand. Would their actions have been equally heroic had they come up dry?" he wrote.
Furthermore, he observed, "the burglars are portrayed as devoted followers of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance. But one of the tenets of such behavior is to take responsibility for the act. I don't recall Thoreau adding: 'Catch me if you can.' "
Dr. Raines replied in an impassioned letter to the editor.
"We certainly broke the law, perhaps many laws," he said. "But those of us who were active in the civil rights movement of the early '60s had learned to differentiate between breaking a law and committing a crime."
John Curtis Raines, the son of a Methodist bishop, was born in Minneapolis on Oct. 27, 1933. He received a bachelor's degree in English from Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., in 1955, and a doctorate in theology from Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1967. He was a professor of religion at Temple for more than 40 years.
Survivors include his wife of 55 years, the former Bonnie Muir of Philadelphia; four children, Lindsley Raines, Nathan Raines and Mary Raines, all of Philadelphia, and Mark Raines of Bedminster, N.J.; a brother; and seven grandchildren.
Filmmaker Johanna Hamilton released a documentary about the break-in, "1971," in 2014. Dr. Raines's story had particular resonance at the time; the previous year, intelligence contractor Edward J. Snowden had leaked a massive trove of documents about surveillance by the National Security Agency. Snowden later obtained asylum in Russia.
Asked in 2014 if he had a message for Snowden, Dr. Raines replied, "From one whistleblower to another whistleblower — Hi!"
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