In 1971, America was in the midst of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War raged overseas and public dissent toward the government was growing. A turning point of this dissent happened on March 8, 1971, when a group of eight activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and stole and distributed political documents to expose evidence of the agency’s attempts to stifle civil resistance.
On Wednesday, The Reel presented a viewing to a full house of the documentary “1971,” giving an insider’s look on the events in Media, Pennsylvania. The viewing was followed by a Q-and-A session with the director, Johanna Hamilton; Keith Forsyth and John Raines, two of the eight people who stole the documents; and then-Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger, who wrote “The Burglary,” a book about the events.
Using historical footage, dramatic reenactments and present-day interviews of the eight activists, the film is a retrospective on the political climate of the late 1960s.
The FBI documents revealed the extent of COINTELPRO, a series of projects to infiltrate and subvert various political organizations and activists, including Martin Luther King, Jr. This sparked a congressional investigation of the FBI and the CIA, led by the Church Committee, as well as the passage of new government regulations protecting First Amendment rights.
J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI and thus one of the most powerful men in America, was a principal focus in the film.
“For those of us looking back and knowing what we know now, he was un-American in what he was doing,” Raines said in an interview. “Hoover told the country what we should fear and we believed him.”
The eight activists, including Raines – now a retired Temple professor of religion – carried out the burglary during the historic boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, before sifting through the documents and mailing them off to newspapers across the country.
Medsger, then at the Post, was one of the first to receive the classified documents and the only one who didn’t return them to the FBI.
“The documents were fairly straightforward and frankly pretty sensational,” Medsger told the audience. “What was difficult for the Post on that day was that the government was demanding that the information not be published. … That’s the challenge – going against what the government is telling you to do.”
“At that time it was a given that in society, in Congress and in journalism that you didn’t ask questions about intelligence agencies,” Medsger added. “We had just begun to become a questioning society and journalists had just begun to ask questions about the war, but there were certainly things that were off-limits and the FBI and CIA were certainly among those bodies that were off-limits.”
Raines said he became involved in political activism in the 1960s, when he was a Freedom Rider. Freedom Riders rode buses into the southern states in protest of segregation. Raines was arrested in 1961 in Little Rock, Arkansas.
“I was born into class privilege and raised in private schools and country clubs – in short, I was raised to understand the world from top-down,” Raines said in an interview. “My first way of living within the world and understanding the world was from within power and privilege.”
Raines added his involvement with the Freedom Rider movement changed his views on power and privilege, and later the way he chose to teach as a professor at Temple.
“A nation that lets itself be governed by fear will quickly become a poorly governed nation,” Raines said to the audience. “We are not a nation that needs to be afraid, and so afraid that we give up our fundamental freedoms.”
Lian Parsons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Lian_Parsons.