Case Closed…And Opened
Fifty Years Later, the Search for the Truth About the JFK Assassination Continues at Hood College
Fifty years ago, President John F.Kennedy was assassinated in a very public way as his motorcade meandered through the streets of Dallas, Texas. About this fact thee is no dispute. However what remains in question all these years later is who shot Kennedy and why?
According to a poll conducted in April of this year by the Associated Press-GfK, the majority of Americans do not believe there was a lone gunman as concluded by the official Warren Commission investigation of the assassination. That uncertainty breeds all types of speculation including conspiracy theories that run the gamut from Russian plots to an inside job by the CIA. But for the historians who want the unvarnished facts, there is no better resource available to them than the Harold Weisberg Archive donated to Hood College after Weisberg’s death in 2002. An online version is currently being digitized by volunteer archivist Clayton Ogilvie of Idaho Falls, Idaho; it is available at www.jfk.hood.edu.
The archive features more than 250,000 pages of documents from the Warren Commission, FBI, Secret Service, Justice Department and CIA records. It includes a voluminous subject file with Weisberg’s collection of contemporary magazine and newspaper clippings, background research and correspondence with other researchers and writers. There are 30 unpublished manuscripts of Weisberg’s critiques of books written about the assassination and more than 85,000 pages of FBI documents on the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., as well as materials on the assassinations of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Malcolm X.
In fact, he went after the facts with dogged determination and used his own money to publish his findings. He was the author of numerous books starting in 1965 with Whitewash: The Report on the Warren Report. It was the first critique of the government’s official version of the assassination of President Kennedy. He went on to write numerous books including Frame-up: The Assassination of Martin Luther King. It has often been said that his writing was lacking, and that he refused to let anyone edit his work. Nonetheless, he was considered to be an expert on the JFK assassination.
“He really was remarkable in his attention to it,” says Gerald McKnight, professor emeritus of history at Hood College and author of Breach of Trust, How the Warren Commission Failed the Nation and Why.
Unlike many people who authored books on the subject, Weisberg never claimed to know who killed JFK. He felt the incomplete job done by the investigators made it impossible for anyone to definitively say who fired the lethal shots. In fact, he was more intent on investigating the investigation and in doing so, he found plenty of documentation to prove that it did not happen as the Warren Commission reported. This was not speculation on his part. He went directly to the source—actual documents prepared by the government. After the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was signed into law in 1966, Weisberg began suing the government for information. And as that law was expanded, Weisberg gained more and morendocuments. A man of modest means, Weisberg was aided by attorney Jim Lesar, who filed the FOIA suits for him pro bono.
What makes these documents so valuable and interesting—and at times, disturbing—is that they were never meant to be seen by the public. They were written before the FOIA. There was no expectation by the authors that anyone outside their immediate circle would ever see the information.
Keeping History Alive
In 1970, McKnight had just finished his doctorate and was teaching part-time at Hood. He happened to move to a house near Weisberg. “That’s how I got to know him. I was familiar with his Whitewash series and we would talk. One day, Weisberg said, ‘I have an archive in my basement and you can use it, and you can use my copier, too,’” McKnight says.
McKnight was thrilled with the wealth of information he found there. It has inspired him to teach a class on political assassinations. “That could only have happened at Hood; not even at another liberal arts college. I would have been called into the office and had it suggested to me that I teach on another topic. But Virginia Lewis was the head of Hood’s Political Science Department at the time. She was politically active in the Democratic Party. She not only gave me a green light; she wanted to teach the class with me!” says McKnight.
During one of McKnight’s seminars, Weisbergnwas scheduled to be a guest speaker. Clayton Ogilvie, in the area on business, saw a flyer publicizing the event and dropped in. He had previously stumbled across Weisberg’s Whitewash I and II in a used book store in Montana and was familiar with his work. After the lecture, he offered to help Weisberg type his manuscripts. One thing led to another. Eventually, Ogilvie was coming to Frederick once a quarter to pack up boxes of documents and ship them to Idaho and back at his own expense. “I began batch scanning them to safeguard against anything getting lost in the mail,” Ogilvie says. “And here I am, 150 file cabinets later.”
Despite Weisberg having a sometimes testy personality, Ogilvie respected him and felt protective over his work. Weisberg was generous with his research and some of the more unethical characters who used his archives walked out with items under their jackets. Ogilvie wanted to put a stop to that. Weisberg and his wife had no children, so Ogilvie and McKnight convinced Weisberg to donate his archives to Hood.
Through the years, Ogilvie and McKnight have become good friends. Ogilvie even stays with the McKnights when he’s in town working on the archives.
By day, Ogilvie works as a Freedom of Information/Privacy Officer for the Department of Energy in Idaho, but most of his free time is devoted to his role as volunteer archivist for Weisberg’s collection. For the last 20 years, he has spent about three hours Monday through Friday, and 12 hours on weekends on that project. He has spent his own money for plane tickets, shipping boxes, archival boxes and shelving, as well as miscellaneous other expenses. And now he is digitizing it all for the use of the public.
One may ask why someone from across the country would commit so much money and time to this cause. “I made a promise to an old man,” Ogilvie says. “He wanted to make sure historians would always have access to his archives. I realized being present is one thing. Being accessible is another. It was then I began negotiating with the library to get the files online,” says Ogilvie.
His first goal was simply to get it all entered so people could begin accessing it. Now, he is working to organize the files to make them easier to search. A lot of the copies Weisberg received were not very good quality. So, from time to time, Ogilvie travels to the National Archives to obtain better examples. He expects to have the website project completed by 2016.
“In the late ’90s, everyone became an expert on the assassination because of access to the Internet,” says Bill Drenas, an historian from Lowell, Mass. “That’s why having this documentation online is so critically important. It allows people to check what they’re reading against the facts.”
Drenas is a big advocate of going straight to the source. “My mentor told me long ago to stop reading the books and go to the original FBI files. If you use books for research, and one book has improper information, then you are multiplying the error.”
But to read those files, Drenas had to periodically travel from Massachusetts to Washington, D.C., to visit the National Archives. “I’d go in when they opened and stay ’til they closed, reading for 12 hours a day. That’s why this digitization is so important and precious. Most people can’t do that, but this is what people should be studying, not the stuff at Barnes & Noble.”
Drenas has been a student of the assassination for years. He cautions against the information touted by those on the bestseller lists. “Most people have a pet theory and then they cherry-pick information to fit their theory. That’s why so many books contradict each other. If you could spread all the information out on a table, no one scenario fits all the information available,” he says.
Thanks to the indefatigable efforts of Ogilvie, checking original source documents is becoming easier than ever. Now, the details of deeds done long ago that have sat patiently, first in a basement and now in the darkness of a fourth floor storage area, are finally getting a chance to shine in a way Weisberg may not have been able to imagine. Historians from all over the world will be able to take advantage of his hard work and persistence with the tip-tap of their computer keys. If only, they choose to look.