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Philly's John Raines was an American hero. Today we need a lot more like him

In 1971, Philadelphia professor John Raines risked his comfortable life to join a burglary that exposed illegal FBI operations. Could today's resisters make that same tough choice?

John Raines
John RainesRead moreRAINES FAMILY

There's one particularly heart-wrenching moment in The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI, the book that first revealed how a secretive band of Philadelphia anti-war activists broke into the FBI's Media office in March 1971 and stole the files that exposed years of illegal spying on political activists by the U.S. government.

As the sun set on March 8, 1971, two central figures in the burglary plot — John Raines, a tall and distinguished-looking religion professor at Temple University, and his wife, Bonnie — were having a typical Monday night dinner at their home on Walnut Lane in Germantown with their three children, 8, 7, and 2 years old. They were about to leave the kids with a babysitter, and the couple tried to eat a normal dinner and listen to the older ones talk about their school day — without betraying their fear that if their plan failed that night, they'd surely be behind bars for the rest of their childhood.

When it was time to go, author Betty Medsger writes, "they both remember kneeling and holding each child in a long, strong embrace, probably stronger than they had ever held them. They tried to act as though nothing unusual was happening. Each of them remembers that as they hugged the children, they hoped, with a nearly desperate feeling, that they would see them in the morning, that they would walk in the door, perhaps by 6 a.m., as quietly as possible, take a shower, get dressed for work, and then, as though they had been there all night, wake the children."

They got their wish. Things worked out for John and Bonnie Raines, the American heroes that America didn't know about for more than four decades. They and their six other cohorts — calling themselves the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI — got away with a treasure trove of secret documents that proved what the Raineses and other activists believed. They revealed that the government was illegally spying on them and thousands of other U.S. citizens, from small local peace groups to leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

John Raines died this week, at age 84, of congestive heart failure here in Philadelphia. But after his group's long-held secret was finally revealed in 2014's The Burglary and a documentary film, 1971, the final years of his life brought a well-deserved wave of adulation both for what Raines and the others accomplished — government reforms aimed (with mixed results, of course) at protecting civil liberties — and for the remarkable risk they took on behalf of their political and moral beliefs.

Indeed, Raines passed away at another fraught moment for American citizens — the rise of a U.S. presidency with an authoritarian bent, with its casual embrace of racism and misogyny and a shocking contempt for a free press, impartial justice, and the other democratic norms that America has striven, however imperfectly, to maintain for the last 241-plus years. Once again, many Americans are asking the existential questions that John and Bonnie Raines asked themselves at the start of the 1970s. What can we do, as everyday citizens, to help stop this nightmare? And just how much of our comfort are we actually willing to risk to try and get there?

Bonnie Raines told me this week that the couple had seen how simply marching against the Vietnam War wasn't ending the conflict, and that stronger methods of resistance were needed; meanwhile, she noted, the FBI's infiltration of the peace movement was palpable. "It seems that no one in Washington was willing to hold J. Edgar Hoover accountable," she said — the reason why the citizens' group took matters into its own hands.

Johanna Hamilton, the filmmaker behind 1971, told me from London this week that John Raines always told her that he didn't want to be seen as a hero but as someone "who owed it to his country, that we had this duty as citizens." Looking back at the risk that the couple would be imprisoned and not able to raise their children, he told her that "we had a responsibility to leave the country a better place for our children."

You rarely hear people talk like that today, and it raises the question of whether John Raines was a creature of a radically different time in America. In some ways, yes. It's practically forgotten now, but the strong anti-war movement that emerged in Philadelphia (centered heavily in Powelton Village, where a few of the burglars lived) had a strong religious bent, with many citing their Quaker, Protestant, or Catholic beliefs as their moral reason for opposing U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

That was certainly the case with John Raines, son of a Methodist bishop, who himself became an ordained minister in his church. He was drawn in the early 1960s to the burgeoning civil rights movement in the South, and his experiences — he was jailed several times — dealing with the white-supremacist power structure radicalized him. He told Philadelphia Magazine years later that "when I saw how power could be manipulated and abused in this way, I was forever changed."

There was something else in the early 1970s — a powerful sense of urgency. Promising young black leaders like Chicago's Fred Hampton (set up by the FBI and assassinated in his bed by local lawmen) were dying or behind bars, while the Vietnam War — on its way to killing more than 58,000 Americans — was not ending after then-President Richard Nixon had promised voters it would. The urgency fueled people to take risks — some, like the violent bombing campaign of the Weather Underground, not as ethically grounded as the mission of the nonviolent Media break-in. Still, hindsight is always 20/20; if the Raineses and the other burglars had been caught, or if the files had shown Hoover's G-men were upstanding agents always upholding the law, they would been called common crooks or kooks — and forgotten by history.

That's not what happened, though. Bonnie Raines, who managed a day-care center in addition to raising her kids, posed as a Swarthmore College student writing a paper to gain access to the Delaware County FBI office — and case it for the other burglars, including the late Haverford College professor Bill Davidon, who initially hatched the scheme. The plan had a brilliant twist: To execute the break-in on the night of the so-called "Fight of the Century" between Philadelphia's own Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, when most of the nation was distracted. Looking back after a generation of post 9/11-security, it's remarkable how easy it was for the burglars to pick the lock and escape to a nearby farmhouse with suitcases full of FBI documents.

The papers revealed the existence of the long-secret FBI program COINTELPRO to spy on political activists and groups, mostly on the left. To carry out COINTELPRO, the bureau used an array of illegal tactics — unlawful wiretapping, opening people's mail, even its own black-bag burglaries. Beyond that, some of the disclosures were shocking, most famously a letter crafted by high-ranking FBI officials to King at the height of the civil rights movement, urging King to kill himself over his extramarital affairs. The trail of disclosure led on Capitol Hill to the landmark 1975 investigation by the Church Committee, which in turn led to a spate of civil rights reforms.

The Media burglars took action when it became clear no one else would. Prior to 1971, Congress and even presidents had been lapdogs for Hoover's FBI, never questioning the lawman's tactics and rubber-stamping his large budget requests. America finds itself in an analogous situation today — an executive branch run amok, and a Congress led by the same party that seems unwilling to challenge either the abuses of President Trump or his often unqualified appointees, as long as Trump is willing to sign off on tax cuts for their wealthy donors.

Bonnie Raines said, "I don't think we have an authentic democracy" right now — and she also cited ongoing government crackdowns against a new generation of whistle-blowers, including the exiled Edward Snowden, that accelerated under Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama. But she voiced a worry that people today are too isolated in social media "cocoons," recalling how 1970s peace activists were sustained by the camaraderie of their community. Today's resistance can succeed, she said, "but it has to have a moral message."

With the government threatening again and again to take away health care for millions and Trump's inherent instability risking a new Asian war that could go nuclear and kill a lot more people more quickly than Vietnam, what is our moral responsibility as citizens — and to our children? At what point will people need to weigh the kind of risks that John and Bonnie Raines took, and when that moment comes, where will a newer generation raised on risk avoidance find that kind of nerve? We are so fortunate that we have the Raineses' example to help guide us, but the hard truth is that we're going to have to mostly figure this one out for ourselves.