With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Ernie Lazar, Who Amassed Archive of FBI Documents, Dies at 77

His first request for U.S. government records was drafted on a portable typewriter in the 1970s. Then over more than four decades — and 9,000-plus letters — the archive built by a reclusive former California civil servant, 1970s disco maven and tireless document sleuth named Ernie Lazar grew to over 600,000 pages from the FBI and other agencies.

The world of Mr. Lazar’s trove is full of suspicions, double-dealings and opportunists. There are references to informants and surveillance, groups on watch lists and Americans viewed as “un-American,” far-right propagandists and suspected leftist “rabble rousers” in an FBI dossier.

Bit by bit, Mr. Lazar also helped shed light on some fundamental questions — essentially who was doing what to whom — including much of the 37 years of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI spanning the 1950s Cold War paranoia, the civil rights showdowns and the rise of nativist groups such as the John Birch Society.

Mr. Lazar, who died Nov. 1 at his home in Palm Springs, Calif., at 77, was not booked on shows as a historical pundit. He did not write his own manuscripts or articles. His name, if noticed at all, was tucked into acknowledgments in books such as Christopher Elias’s “Gossip Men” (2021) on the “Red Scare” era and Thomas Konda’s “Conspiracies of Conspiracies: How Delusions Have Overrun America” (2019).

But to a generation of authors, researchers, academics and others, Mr. Lazar was a figure of heroic proportions. Through sheer perseverance and patience, Mr. Lazar became a kind of Zen master of the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, a provision enacted in 1967 that allowed the public a centralized way to request unclassified government material.

Mr. Lazar estimated that more than 3 million people had accessed his digital archive, helping inform hundreds of works from books to doctoral theses.


A large portion of Mr. Lazar’s archive delves into the far right, including compiling lists of arrests and prosecutions of Proud Boys followers and other supporters of President Donald Trump who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Mr. Lazar’s documents were cited by an emeritus professor of history at the City University of New York, Ronald Radosh, for a 2020 story in the Daily Beast linking anti-feminist firebrand Phyllis Schlafly to the John Birch Society. Schlafly, who died in 2016, had denied she was a member.

In a 2009 segment of the “Rachel Maddow Show” on the John Birch Society connections to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Maddow cited a “freelance researcher named Ernie Lazar” for digging up the minutes from the first John Birch Society meeting in 1960.

Read entire article at Washington Post