Gerald D. McKnight
October 12,1932 – January 30, 2021.
David R. Wrone
Now cracks a noble heart. Gerald D. McKnight has died. Implacable Death took him on January 30, 2021, from his medical/retirement home in Lawrence, Kansas. He had been ill for many months.
For many years as a professor of history he had taught history at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, where he also had served as the chair of the History and Political Science Department. Noted for his outstanding character and gentle manners, the faculty held him in great respect, with administrators knowing he was a rock that they could depend upon, whose fair judgments and consistently sound collegiate outlook they could rest assured to find in his apt comments, good advice, and proper actions. But his greatest noted quality as a professor came in his love of teaching, which was marked by splendid lectures infused with inspiring principles and insights. His enlightening courses lit the path for the life journey of generations of students.
One could not be in his company long ere he would mention a book on a subject or on one he was reading, for in this darkening age when reading and books have increasingly become a negative character quality among so much of academia, his reliance on these foundation building blocks of knowledge was a joy to hear. Indeed, at his home one could not go far without coming into contact with these repositories of our accomplishments in civilization and transmitter of ideas. His near neighbor was the indefatigable assassination scholar Harold Weisberg whose friendship with Professor McKnight over the years grew in their common causes.
As he taught and read, he became more disenchanted with the literature and press coverage on the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The result came to an exceptional well-written history, The Last Crusade; Martin Luther King, Jr., the FBI and the Poor People’s Campaign on the largely neglected but as he found to be the lynchpin of understanding the last years of the civil rights movement and indeed an unhappy influence on the course of American history.
In the course of his labor, he became friend and boon companion with Clayton Ogilvie who had similar interests and unusual skill for digitizing documents. Professor McKnight negotiated with Hood College’s librarians to become the repository of Harold’s records and personal papers that filled approximately 150 four-drawer file cabinets. Here are deposited hundreds of thousands of pages of FBI FOIA documents garnered by Weisberg (with the legal work of his attorney Jim Lesar) in fiercely contested lawsuits as well as his archival records. The records of critics Sylvia Meagher, Ray Marcus, Hal Verb and others were later added. In the days preceding Harold’s passing Ogilvie, in turn, committed to Harold that he would digitize all of his record to ensure his legacy of open access to his records would continue. In the last two years preceding Gerry McKnight’s passing, Ogilvie, in turn made the same commitment that Gerry’s records would also be digitized and preserved like Harold’s. Freely available over the net, they have become an often-used resource for students and scholars, both in the United States and in foreign lands. The digital records constitute solid pillars in a temple monument erected for the study of American History in the last half the 20th century.
Professor McKnight organized and hosted several JFK assassination conferences at Hood College and traveled to present at the Dallas-UK in Canterbury, England. His last JFK lecture appearance was at the Mid-America conference in Springfield, Missouri.
In 2005 he published his superbly researched and organized Breach of Trust: How the Warren Commission Failed the Nation and Why.
Supplementing the documents to be found in the Harold Weisberg Archive, Gerry frequented the National Archives to augment his knowledge base to draft his book on the Warren Commission. Among Gerry’s many points to be found in Breach of Trust was that Commission staff included spies inserted by the Department of Justice and the Central Intelligence Agency; the Commission’s work was stained by the corruption and manipulation of the military. One member acted as an informer for the CIA, another for the FBI. Incompetent and prejudicial information that would not be permitted in a formal judicial proceeding was free to enter the record from state and primarily federal investigators to make a prosecutorial indictment. Gerry was able to document the suppression of material that would have exculpated Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin, in favor of editing critical assassination reconstruction timelines and ignoring witness statements that were inconveniently subverting their preconceived solutions to the crime.
All the Commission’s efforts and those of subsequent “investigative” agencies’ efforts that followed seemed designed to deflect an impartial assessment of the facts left a rich documentary record for diligent scholars such as Professor McKnight to examine. Gerry was a scholar; he knew his craft well knew; he taught his students how to research and document their findings as they carefully read the primary documentary evidence. He left behind an exemplar for investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy’s murder as forensic investigation free of political Procrustean artifice.
In retirement, as disease wracked his body and age limited his mobility, he remained hard at work assembling and organizing his many notes taken from government documents at the National Archives to prepare an addendum to his Breach of Trust. He sought to write the history of the critical first ten days of the Warren Commission inquiry and the background of the man wrongly charged with the crime. As weakness slowed his steps, and his mind began to wander, he bequeathed his notes, his documents and his initial chapters to the Harold Weisberg Archive to serve as catalyst for a new generation of historical researcher to pick up his mantle and to rid the historical record of its circumambulations and obfuscations. He thought American CAN handle the truth!
Gerald D. McKnight has departed this plain of existence. He has paid his obol to the boatman Charon, who, as flights of angels sung, rowed him across the dark and roiling waters of the river of mortality to a port in the Elysian Fields. We know that then the trumpets sounded from the other side to welcome him home.
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David R. Wrone, Ph.D. is a former professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, where he taught American history, Indian history and the JFK assassination for 35 years. He has published numerous book reviews on the subject and edited The Legal Proceedings of Harold Weisbergv General Services Administration (1975), the court record on the fight to obtain the January 27, 1964 executive session transcript of the Warren Commission, and co-edited, with D. Guth, The Assassination of John F. Kennedy: A Comprehensive Historical and Legal Bibliography, 1963-1979 (Greenwood Press, 1980). He is also author of the newly published, The Zapruder Film (University Press of Kansas). In his 40 years of research and reading on the assassination, he has concentrated on the evidence found in files of the FBI and has sued the government for Zapruder film records, especially relating to its acquisition and purchase. Professor Wrone received his Ph.D. in American history from the University of Illinois-Urbana. He is an esteemed member of the AARC’s Board of Directors.