Much has been written about Baptist ethicist Henlee H. Barnette, including the fact that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was interested in some of his activities. But so far as we know, Barnette’s FBI file hasn’t seen the light of day—until now.
In a memorandum to “DIRECTOR, FBI” dated May 24, 1960, a nameless “special agent in charge” responds to a Bureau request “for pertinent information” about Barnette that may lie in the Passport Office of the U.S. Department of State.
Most of the five-page file shared with EthicsDaily.com under the Freedom of Information/Privacy Acts contains data from Barnette’s passport application, dated March 7, 1957. Barnette needed a passport because he intended to tour the Soviet Union that summer with other Americans, including Jerome Davis, who spoke Russian fluently and directed an organization called Promoting Enduring Peace.
The file mentions that Barnette attached a letter to his passport application, and that the letter was on stationery of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where Barnette was then acting dean of the School of Theology. In that letter, Barnette offered his intended travel itinerary, which included stops in England, France, Poland, Finland and Russia.
Barnette indeed made it to Russia that summer, and he later chronicled his visit with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in several publications. That was the incident that sparked the FBI’s investigation of Barnette, who would continue to remark about the Bureau’s interest in him late in life.
In Barnette’s 2004 book A Pilgrimage of Faith, he included a couple of pages on this topic, titled “Scrutiny by the FBI.” According to Barnette, the FBI investigated him from 1957 (after his trip to Russia) to 1974 (when his son returned to the United States after resisting the draft for the Vietnam War). Barnette detailed in his book several encounters he had with FBI agents at work and at home, though nothing about these appears in the file provided recently by the FBI.
What does appear in Barnette’s passport application is this familiar question from the era: “The application further disclosed that BARNETTE answered ‘No’ to the questions concerning past or present membership in the Communist Party.”
If the FBI was concerned about linkages between Barnette and communism–in 1957 when Barnette applied for the passport, or in 1960 when this particular file was opened–such concerns would have intensified when Barnette helped invite Martin Luther King Jr. to Southern Seminary’s campus in 1961.
The FBI had been investigating King and would continue to do so. Much of King’s opposition at the time painted him as a communist. King accepted the invitation from white faculty members at Southern to speak on campus, and that historic visit makes up part of our new DVD, “Beneath the Skin: Baptists and Racism.”
In our examination of how Baptists have supported, and fought, racism, we traveled to Louisville for interviews. Barnette died in 2004, but we were able to interview one of his friends, Wayne Ward, a former theology professor at Southern and one of the men who courageously welcomed King to campus.
We also spent time in Louisville with the group known as “Barnette’s Buddies,” which continues to gather each month, as they did when Barnette was alive, to hear and discuss matters of moral concern. We shot one of their meetings, and that footage now comprises a DVD extra, “Remembering Henlee Barnette.”
Because Henlee Barnette is remembered as a giant of the faith and a foot soldier in the fight for justice, maybe what’s most striking about his FBI file is the inclusion of the mundane. Barnette, it says, was 6 feet tall and had auburn hair and blue eyes. And on his passport application, under the category “distinguishing marks,” Barnette wrote, “scar on top of left hand.”
More than 50 years after Barnette applied for that passport, we look back and see a life marked by distinctions too numerous and significant to count. That scar–a mark of distinction for a bureaucracy–is not one of them. Barnette’s life was marked, say his friends in our DVD, by an insistence on justice. He sought it for all because he was steeped in the gospel. And despite what survives in an FBI file, he most certainly saw beneath the skin.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com. He co-produced/directed the new DVD “Beneath the Skin: Baptists and Racism.”