WASHINGTON — 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 a committee led by US Senator Frank Church, an Idaho Democrat, that uncovered widespread abuses in the US 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 wife as ‘‘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.
The group scheduled the break-in to coincide with a 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 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.