For 43 years, John 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 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 Raines and his wife as “one of the most powerful acts of resistance in the history of the country.”
Her account helped make 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.
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 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, Alabama, 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,” Raines told NPR in 2014. “It was his FBI, nobody else's.”
With his wife, 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, Pennsylvania.
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, New Jersey; a brother; and seven grandchildren.