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Cuban expert and York editor Jim Higgins: ‘He was just another journalist … with opinions’

The FBI checked in on York (Pa.) Gazette and Daily editor James Higgins for years after his work showed sympathy for Cuba and Fidel Castro. Background posts: York cartoonist’s work helps celebrate peace activism, J.W. Gitt: ‘Just say it … straight out’ and Old York newspaper won’t die or fade away.

For decades, people tried to tie J.W. Gitt’s Gazette and Daily to the Communist Party or some revolutionary cause… .

I wrote a story several years ago about how the FBI could make no connection.
Gitt’s biographer, Mary Hamilton, detailed in her “Rising from the Wilderness” that the McCarthy probe failed to entangled Gitt or anyone on his Gazette.
And now York Daily Record/Sunday News reporter Jeff Frantz debunked claims that Jim Higgins, Gitt’s editor for two decades, was some insidious political force.
Frantz combed FBI files, among other sources and reported the following titled: “York’s James Higgins lauded Castro’s rise in the 1960s — and caught the FBI’s eye as a result. Higgins: Opinions raised FBI concern.”

One day in July 1968, an agent from the FBI’s Philadelphia field office typed out a four-page memo on James C. Higgins Jr.
The bureau had been following Higgins, the assistant editor of the Gazette and Daily, York’s morning newspaper at the time, since April 1961.
Agents documented his trips from a rural, mostly conservative county to New York City, where he delivered speeches imploring the government to normalize relations with Cuba, the nation’s closest Cold War enemy.
They noted when he spoke at rallies to raise money for students traveling to Cuba. They wondered if he would join the Communist Party. They recorded the stories of informants, who said Higgins wanted to visit Cuba. For a time, they blocked his passport.
The agent, whose name remains classified, wrote that four-page memo at a time when the U.S. government considered Cuba one of it’s biggest security threats. It had tried to topple Fidel Castro’s government with the covert Bay of Pigs invasion, discovered Soviet missals on the island and began the economic embargo still in place today, even after Castro relinquished power earlier this year.
In finishing the memo to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the agent came to a simple conclusion:
“(Higgins) has made substantial statements which are detrimental to the best interests of the United States,” the agent wrote in documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
Higgins, a middle-aged local tennis champion, should be included in the Security Index, the FBI’s list of potential threats to national security.
The agent had decided that Higgins, as a prominent newsman, was in a position of influence and might be a violent revolutionary who would seek to inspire others in overthrowing the government.
“No, he certainly wasn’t,” said Charlie Bacas, who worked as a reporter for the Gazette and Daily under Higgins. “He was just another journalist. A journalist with opinions.”
In recent interviews, family, friends and colleagues said Higgins, who died in 2001 at age 84, was a critic of U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba. He worked with the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, he wrote op-ed pieces for newspapers and magazines and he made multiple trips to the island between 1968 and 1977.
But, they said, he was not the insidious political force the FBI once believed.
“I always thought Pop’s main focus was trying to give the American people . . . some miniscule alternative perspective on what was actually going on in Cuba,” said Higgins’ youngest son, John Higgins.
“He thought it was ridiculous that the American press was only reporting on it one way and that was contradictory to his experience.”
With Castro out of power, people in both Havana and Washington have since said his brother, Raul Castro, might be able to change the relationship between the two nations.
“I think it’s deliciously ironic that most of what the people at Fair Play for Cuba were talking about is going to come up again,” Bacas said.
By the mid-’60s, The Gazette and Daily had become internationally known for its liberal editorial stances and aggressive, wide-ranging coverage.
The owner, J.W. Gitt, supported Progressive Party candidate Henry A. Wallace in the 1948 presidential election. He was against McCarthyism and backed the civil rights movement. All those views found their way into his newspaper.
In Higgins, Gitt saw a kindred spirit. Shortly after Higgins joined the paper in 1949, Gitt promoted Higgins to assistant editor and charged him with writing editorials, said Mary A. Hamilton, who worked at the paper and wrote, “Rising from the Wilderness: J.W. Gitt and his Legendary Newspaper.”
Higgins was already well connected.
Born in Milwaukee but raised in New England, he went to Harvard, where he played on the tennis team with Joe Kennedy, John F. Kennedy’s brother. He met many of his jazz idols writing for Down Beat magazine and said the first time he got high was when he shared a joint with Billie Holiday. Pete Seeger, the folk singer, sang his children lullabies.
Once he was established as assistant editor, he often introduced himself as “Higgins of the Gazette,” his son Peter Higgins said. In liberal circles, it gave him an immediate cache.
By 1961, Fidel Castro had aligned his revolutionary government with the Soviet Union. The U.S., in response, adopted an anti-Castro policy and secretly began working to topple the Cuban government.
Higgins, then 44 years old, used his stature to publicly lobby for change.
He spoke at a rally that February sponsored by the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. “The Militant,” the Socialist Workers Party’s magazine, covered the event and wrote that Higgins delivered a scathing, satirical attack on the free American press and its lying campaign against Cuba.
The FBI saw the article. By April, the Philadelphia field office started writing memos on Higgins.
The file is two inches thick and records how agents shadowed Higgins from 1961 until 1975, by which time he was living in Boston and teaching journalism at Boston University.
In the early years, the agents focused on various speeches he made in support of the FPCC. Later, they logged rumors and informant reports tracing two of Higgins’ trips to Cuba, noting that he was spotted with two tennis rackets before crossing the border into Mexico and had to fly back through Europe.
They kept Higgins-signed editorials and descriptions of Higgins’ speeches from leftist publications. They talked to informants inside or close to peace and pro-Cuba organizations in York and the northeast.
The communist party was frustrated with him, an informant said, because Higgins refused to join. The informant said Higgins “was considered an ‘Ivory Tower’ theoretician.”
Some of what the agents recorded appears to be little more than hearsay. In a report dated May 21, 1970, an agent described an informant as a “confidential source with whom insufficient contact has been made to determine his reliability, but who is in a position to furnish reliable information.”
On occasion, the documents stray from his political actions. Several times, agents called Higgins an “unsatisfactory debtor.”
Higgins first went to Cuba in 1968 to research a book on the educational system set up for the first generation of Cubans to grow up after the revolution, his son John said.
Agents recorded that Higgins had a brief meeting with Fidel Castro on the street in Havana.
He came back fascinated by the vibrancy of the people, his family and friends said. Literacy rates were up in the countryside, he told them, and while the people were poor, conditions were improving. Everyone he encountered believed in the Revolution.
Higgins was convinced the mainstream media was deceiving the public by repeating the talking points of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations without any attempt at independent reporting.
He wanted to write about his experiences in the op-ed pages of the Gazette, but Gitt did not allow it, because, Hamilton said, Gitt refused to support dictators. That set Higgins on the path to leave The Gazette and Daily in 1970, Hamilton said.
He moved to New York and then to Boston. He continued researching his book on Cuba, which he never finished, and co-wrote a book on unions with the general secretary of the Electrical Workers Union.
As decades passed, and the U.S. embargo damaged Cuba and stories of Castro’s repression of dissidents and homosexuals leaked out, Higgins continued to believe in the idea behind the revolution.
“In many ways, he thought it was an advanced society,” John Higgins said. “He thought Fidel’s heart and passion were very much in the right place, as he tried to educate people and even out society so there wasn’t a class distinction.”
“He did like Fidel, he did like what he was doing, but he viewed it as the evolution of a country more so than one man,” Peter Higgins said.
Higgins suspected the government kept track of him.
“He would have to be very naive not to,” son Peter said.
Friends and family thought he would be surprised to find hundreds of papers documenting more than a decade of his life.
Whatever the level of surveillance he suspected, he didn’t let it change his public behavior, they said.
“He understood that if he was affected in any way by the knowledge that he was being monitored that the powers in Washington would be victorious,” said Howard Zinn, who taught with Higgins at Boston University and later wrote “A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present.”
It was years before the FBI gave up on Higgins.
The agent’s initial request to include Higgins in the Security Index, in 1968, was denied because nothing indicated that “Higgins would resort to violence to fulfill his anti-United States sympathies.” A second request, filed by agents in Boston in 1972, was denied for the same reason.
The FBI lost him briefly after he moved to the Boston area. An agent called the home of his ex-wife pretending to be a census worker and learned Higgins was renting a room.
“It’s strange just to think that one of us picked up the phone,” said his son John Higgins, who was living in the house at the time.
The last few memos agents filed on Higgins are fairly repetitive. The bureau knew who he was and discounted him as a target.
By 1975, the agents decided to move on.