Ernie Lazar: By Filing as Many as 10,000 Freedom of Information Requests About Extremist Groups, He Proved Invaluable to Historians and Journalists

From a New York Times obit by Sam Roberts headlined “Ernie Lazar, Who Trawled for Secret Government Documents, Dies at 77”:

Ernie Lazar, an unheralded hero of researchers who mined his vast digital and documentary archive of government records on political extremists to invigorate their books, articles and arguments and to warn against “it can’t happen here” complacency, died in Palm Springs, Calif.

Mr. Lazar estimated that more than three million people around the world had accessed his encyclopedic digital library found in the Internet Archive, Wikipedia and other sites while pursuing their independent investigations into political organizations ranging from the Communist Party USA to the virulently anti-communist John Birch Society.

He culled those records after submitting what he said were some 10,000 Freedom of Information Act requests to the F.B.I. and other sources and made them available at no cost to historians, authors, journalists, doctoral students, debaters and the incurably curious, either online or through a hard-copy paper library.

“Over the past 30 years, literally no one has made greater use of the Freedom of Information Act than Ernie Lazar,” David J. Garrow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and historian, said in an email.

Mr. Lazar’s name was largely unknown beyond the tenacious group of researchers who regularly plumb government records and the meticulous readers of footnotes and authors’ acknowledgments in books in which he sometimes received credit. But the fruits of what he acknowledged was his “unusual hobby” proliferated.

Ronald Radosh, an emeritus history professor at the City University of New York, credited Mr. Lazar’s research when he reported in The Daily Beast in 2020 that Phyllis Schlafly, a leader of grass-roots campaigns against communism, abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment, had been a member of the John Birch Society. Mrs. Schlafly, who died in 2016, had consistently denied that she belonged to the organization or that it supported her campaigns.

“Given the bureaucratic difficulties and delays in getting F.B.I. files,” said Harvey Klehr, a professor of politics and history at Emory University in Atlanta who has collaborated with the historian John Earl Haynes on books about Soviet espionage in the United States, “it is doubtful if much of what Ernie received and made available would have ever seen the light of day.”

Thanks to Mr. Lazar, Professor Klehr and Mr. Haynes were able to provide “a much more complete and reliable picture” of the operation of the F.B.I. counterspies Jack and Morris Childs in an article this year, Professor Klehr said. From the late 1950s to the late ’80s the K.G.B. delivered millions of dollars to the American Communist Party through the Childs brothers, who were actually working for the F.B.I. as double agents.

Mr. Lazar’s research, Professor Klehr said, was “a major contribution to our understanding of one of the most successful and impactful F.B.I. counterintelligence operations it ever conducted.”

Mr. Haynes agreed: “Without Lazar having saved us years of making Freedom of Information requests, I doubt that we would ever have completed the article,” which appeared on H-Net, a humanities and social science website.

Mr. Lazar was tenacious and, unlike most researchers working on deadline or on a specific quest, was patient and had plenty of time. He embellished his 600,000-page online and paper library — stored at his home and in a warehouse — with curatorial annotations that provided context and that historians spanning the ideological spectrum largely agreed distinguished him as a discerning avocational archivist.

He immersed himself in censored, misplaced or redacted government records, decoding what had been rendered incomprehensible, deliberately or habitually. He supplemented those official files with copies of court decisions and the personal papers of figures in extremist groups that had been archived at colleges and other institutions.

In what Mr. Lazar described as his last online message, he advised his followers this year that in uploading a 490-page index of all his files and documents, he was struck by how deeply today’s controversies over racism and nativism are rooted in movements from the 1930s through the 1960s.

He urged “a new generation of researchers to continue preserving and sharing this historical record” and added: “Please continue the fight to make our country live up to its ideals!”

Mr. Lazar was born Ernest Clayton Jammes in Minneapolis. He said his biological mother was Marjorie Jammes, who owned a bar in New Orleans and later worked in Las Vegas. He did not know who his biological father was, he said.

He was 3 years old when, after moving with his mother to Chicago, she gave him up for adoption to the Lazar family, who lived down the street and whose daughter had been his babysitter.

The Lazars raised him until the early 1960s, when he moved to the Bay Area of California and enrolled in what was then California State College at Hayward (now California State University, East Bay). He majored in history and made the dean’s list in 1965 with straight A’s but did not graduate.

Mr. Lazar was motivated to embark on his freelance research while he was still a teenager and a regular reader of the monthly F.B.I. Law Enforcement Bulletin, which a police officer relative subscribed to.

In one issue, Ernie noticed a statement by the F.B.I. director, J. Edgar Hoover, that flatly contradicted a John Birch Society supporter’s letter to the editor in a local newspaper, The Hayward Daily Review, stating that the American Communist Party was fomenting racial unrest to “convert the Dixie states into a Negro Soviet Republic.” Mr. Lazar wrote a letter to the editor quoting Hoover.

Among the hostile responses Mr. Lazar’s letter generated was an accusatory couplet, which read: “Is it just coincidence that Ernie’s words so arty, sound just like the Communist Party?”

He was baffled, he wrote, at how citing Hoover could imply a predisposition toward Communism. “Thus began my lifelong interest in right-wing conspiracy theories and their adherents,” he wrote.

As his files grew, the Center for Right Wing Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, agreed to digitize some of them, thanks to a grant from the Southern Poverty Law Center. Mr. Lazar also began relying on online crowdsourcing for funding.

He supported himself by working in the music industry, including as a record promoter; as a disc jockey; and as a record store owner in San Francisco specializing in disco music.

As a music promoter he helped propel Patrick Hernandez’s “Born to Be Alive” to Billboard’s No. 1 dance club disco album in 1979.

He was also employed for 22 years by the State of California — in its Board of Registered Nursing, the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Secretary of State’s office.

“If there were some prize for ‘Important and Consequential People Who Are Unknown to the General Public,’ Ernie would be a top contender,” Mr. Garrow said.

Jason Scott, who worked with Mr. Lazar through the Internet Archive to catalog his online cache and preserve his documentary archive, described him as “meticulous, friendly, thoughtful and informative, even in the face of oblivion.”

In part because he feared retribution from extremist groups, Mr. Lazar was very private, almost reclusive. He said his enormous aggregation of files did not include a single photograph of himself. He also said that in making nearly 10,000 Freedom of Information requests to the F.B.I., he had never asked whether the bureau had compiled a file on him.

Sam Roberts, an obituaries reporter, was previously The Times’s urban affairs correspondent and is the host of “The New York Times Close Up,” a weekly news and interview program on CUNY-TV.

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