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In ‘My Fugitive,’ a lawyer’s daughter trains her eye on the FBI’s excesses

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Washington University Photographic Services Collection, Washington University Libraries, Department Of Special Collections
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Provided
College students and other antiwar protesters fill the streets of St. Louis in October 1969.

Nina Gilden Seavey grew up in St. Louis, the child of civil rights attorney Louis Gilden. Her father represented Percy Green, whose protests rocked the city in the 1960s and ’70s. His clients also included the Washington University students accused of burning two ROTC buildings to the ground during antiwar protests in 1970.

But Gilden was haunted by the case of Howard Mechanic, a Wash U student convicted of throwing a cherry bomb during the protest that followed the Kent State shootings. Sentenced to five years in federal prison, Mechanic gave up his dreams of law school and went on the lam, eventually becoming the second-longest-running fugitive in U.S. history.

Gilden died on Christmas Day in 2000, one month before Mechanic was pardoned by President Bill Clinton. But his daughter picked up the story he couldn’t let go.

Now an acclaimed documentary filmmaker, Seavey sued the federal government to access her father’s FBI files as well as many of his clients. Ultimately, she found film’s constraints too limiting for the tale told in those records. Instead, she’s released a podcast, “My Fugitive,” a production of Pineapple Street Studios.

“My Fugitive” tells the story of Howard Mechanic and the zealous (and illegal) attempts by the FBI’s St. Louis field office to disrupt the antiwar movement. It also tells another, surprisingly connected story: about an apparent St. Louis-based plot to murder the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Drawing on the FBI files she obtained, Seavey connects dots that were not public in her father’s lifetime.

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Provided by Nina Gilden Seavey
Nina Gilden Seavey

Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air was a one-hour special edition that wove together an interview with Seavey before a live audience at the St. Louis International Film Festival and excerpts from her podcast “My Fugitive” to tell a story about St. Louis in the 1960s and ’70s — and a daughter’s quest to make sense of history.

Seavey described her father as “something of a terrier … angry and unrelenting.” And after years fighting the government in court on behalf of his clients, he was no naif.

Even so, she believes he would have been shocked by the extent of the FBI’s harassment and wiretapping through its COINTELPRO operation. Originally begun in 1956 to neutralize communists in the U.S., the program expanded over the course of the 1960s to target everyone from civil rights leaders to Native American activists to the “New Left”— which included students in the antiwar movement. A congressional committee examining COINTELPRO’s excesses after J. Edgar Hoover’s death summarized the operation as “a secret war against those citizens it considers threats to the established order.”

That included King, whom the FBI surveilled and harassed (including via the infamous letter urging him to kill himself). And as the files Seavey obtained through her lawsuit made clear, that included civil rights attorneys like Louis Gilden.

“It wasn't just these students who were being targeted,” she told St. Louis on the Air. “They were bugging him; his phones in his office were tapped. Think of the attorney-client privilege that was abrogated by COINTELPRO New Left.”

Listen to Nina Gilden Seavey on St. Louis on the Air

Seavey believes that illegal activity is why the FBI looked the other way when it was briefed on a bounty offered by a St. Louis lawyer who allegedly wanted King assassinated. That bounty was the talk of the Grapevine Tavern, a white-supremacist-affiliated bar in the city’s Benton Park neighborhood owned by John Larry Ray.

Ray’s younger brother, James Earl Ray, was later convicted of killing King. But though Ray later retracted his confession and said he’d been a “dupe,” Seavey said, the FBI failed to investigate the Grapevine conspiracy. As “My Fugitive” discusses, she believes doing so could have jeopardized some of the FBI’s COINTELPRO informants — and potentially revealed the program and its excesses.

“If they had done an investigation into what happened at the Grapevine Tavern, they would have come up and found COINTELPRO against Martin Luther King,” she said.

Seavey believes the revelations would have left her father “incredulous.”

“My father, if nothing else, was a believer in the system,” she said. “He didn't believe in radical violence of any kind. He believed in peaceful protest. He believed in working through the courts. He believed that Howard should have served his sentence. He believed in the justice system.”

She continued: “In some ways, I'm kind of glad he didn't live to see this, because it makes me wonder whether he would have felt that his life and his work had been in vain. Because he could never have imagined the assault that he would have been under by these agencies.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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