That’s probably a little confusing. Let me explain.
One of the essential ingredients in what I was able to discern about the hidden history of the Willie McGee case is a massive FBI file labeled, clearly enough, “WILLIE McGEE,” which I obtained back in 2006.
Among other things, the file contains rich details about FBI surveillance that occurred in Jackson, Mississippi, in the summer of 1950, when several pro-McGee protesters traveled to Jackson to testify at a clemency hearing for McGee, which was held in the state capitol building in late July. Mississippi Governor Fielding Wright, who clearly wanted to see McGee die in the electric chair, grudgingly agreed to hold the hearing at the behest of the Civil Rights Congress, the Communist-affiliated northern group that paid for and managed McGee’s defense. In the aftermath, several CRC types—including two official spokesmen and a left-wing journalist—were beaten up by roving groups of Klan-affiliated thugs who were never identified. In the FBI report, their leaders are named, but the names are blacked out. It’s also pretty obvious from this file that local law enforcement officials conspired with the assailants, letting them know where and when to find the people they wanted to punch out.
When I say I “obtained” this file, I should clarify: I didn’t get it from the FBI. My copy came from a person who had obtained it several years earlier through a FOIA request. As a cover letter on the documents indicated, the file had first been requested way back in the late 1970s, by a historian who was researching the McGee case but didn’t end up writing about it.
Because so many details in the file were blacked out, I decided to re-request it from the FBI, as a first step toward asking that the Klan names I was interested in be un-blacked. I described what I had in detail, sent a copy of the cover letter and identifying numbers on the file, and waited. Several months after I made this request—the usual amount of time—the response came back: There were no FBI files about Willie McGee.
Since I already had the file, that response seemed especially strange. The file held a large amount of information about a case that involved Communism and civil rights. It was undoubtedly of historical significance, since the McGee case had become a news story all over the world, one that, at various times, captured the attention of Harry Truman, Albert Einstein, William Faulkner, and Paul Robeson, among many others. Under the usual rules of what’s supposed to be preserved by the FBI, it should have still been around.
I filed an appeal, waited a long time, and eventually received a skinny sheaf of documents that didn’t overlap at all with what I already had, and were basically irrelevant. I still don’t know if the file that I have exists anymore, but, officially, it doesn’t seem to. If I hadn’t lucked into finding the file-finders who preceded me, I would have come up empty. To put it mildly, it wasn’t the sort of experience that inspires confidence in the process.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted yesterday to back a bill (the “Faster FOIA Act of 2010”) that would create a commission to look into the issue of government delays in response to FOIA requests. I wish Congress would go much further and look deeply into how the entire confusing process works and doesn’t work, with a full investigation into which documents are being kept and which are being junked. I’m sure other people out there have strange stories like mine.