By Michael Coard
It was precisely 47 years ago on Saturday, June 17, 1972 at 1:47 a.m. that Frank Wills, an unknown 24-year-old Black security guard at the posh Watergate office/apartment complex in Washington, D.C., uncovered the biggest domestic political scandal and crime in American presidential history.
It happened when the eagle-eyed Wills discovered duct tape that had been inconspicuously placed and then replaced on a latch bolt on the basement door adjacent to a stairwell near the parking garage by burglars dispatched by Republican President Richard Nixon. Thanks to Wills, it was ultimately revealed that Nixon, through his “Committee for the Re-election of the President,” had been committing numerous crimes, including spying on political opponents, mostly Democrats.
Those basement-entering burglars, who were in the building to steal confidential documents from the sixth floor offices of the Democratic National Committee headquarters, consisted of five men, including a former CIA official. By the way, Wills wasn’t even scheduled to check the basement door a second time until about an hour after his first round of office door inspections. But, as he informed federal investigators, something he described as a “sixth sense” told him to check that door 45 minutes sooner than he was assigned to.
As an aside, I want Brother Wills to know that it wasn’t a “sixth sense” in connection with that sixth floor. It was his/our “third eye,” which is culturally/anthropologically installed by his/our melanin-producing pineal gland. In other words, it’s a Black thing, so some people reading this have no idea what I’m talking about. And I prefer it that way. But I digress, so let’s get back to our Black Watergate hero.
After Wills discovered what was going on and immediately called the Second Precinct police (as evidenced on page 48 of his actual handwritten logbook, which has been memorialized in the National Archives and can be seen at watergate.info/burglary/frank-wills-watergate-security-log), what ultimately followed was truly historic: the explosive revelation of break-ins, corruption, buggings, enemies lists, slush funds, and perjury that led to the unprecedented downfall and humiliating resignation of a president as well as to the arrest, indictment, prosecution, and jailing of several of his powerful political conspirators.
Because of Wills’ investigatory prowess, a new word, actually a new suffix, was created in the U.S. to describe any high-profile scandal. That new suffix is “-gate,” such as, for example, “Nipplegate” (2004 Super Bowl performance by Janet Jackson), “Bonusgate” (2008 Pennsylvania political campaign funding), “Bridgegate” (2013 vindictive lane closures by N.J. Governor Chris Christie), “Deflategate” (2015 footballs used by New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady), and “Porngate” (2015 Pennsylvania Supreme Court pornographic, racist, and sexist emails). And it’s not used only in America but also in reference to international scandals such as those in England, Israel, Mexico, Pakistan, Ireland, Angola, and elsewhere.
Despite Wills’ essential role in exposing the most important domestic political scandal and crime in American presidential history, he received an insultingly low so-called raise from $80.00 to $82.50 in his weekly salary and never received a promotion or the type of official public acclaim he deserved.
In fact, after he resigned from his position at the Watergate building because of his employer’s racist disrespect, he sought employment at several locations, including Howard University, which refused to hire him for fear of losing federal funding. Because he couldn’t find a job, he was forced to move back to Georgia with his mother after she was debilitated by a massive stroke. Together, they struggled to survive on her meager $450 monthly Social Security stipend.
Although Nixon never went to jail and a number of his conspirators became wealthy celebrities, Wills in 1983 was sentenced to one year in jail after having been falsely accused of stealing a $12.00 pair of sneakers, even though the police admit he never left the shoe store with those items.
That bad news was followed by worse news. Brother Wills, born on February 4, 1948, died in poverty at age 52 on September 27, 2000. And shortly before his death, he told a reporter, “I got nothing for what I did and I completely lost my faith in the political system.”
But here’s some good news. Under the impressive leadership of Congresswoman Karen Bass, Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), and with the essential initiative of fellow member Congressman Dwight Evans, the CBC is now focused on giving Frank Wills the public recognition and honor he righteously deserves. Together, both members are working to formally enter Frank Wills’ name into the official congressional record. This permanent entry will serve as an enduring acknowledgment of the great legacy left by this great man.
We all know that Frank Wills is another “hidden figure” in our long history in this country. And we thank Chairperson Bass, Congressman Evans, and the entire CBC for celebrating him as a genuine and history-making American hero by working to enter his name in the congressional record for the entire country to see on this 47th anniversary and for the entire country to remember forever. By the way, this entry is consistent with what the chairman of the Democratic National Committee back in the fall of 1972 realized when he pointed out that Wills had played “a unique role in the history of the nation.”
After all, Frank Wills, a law enforcement hero, single-handedly lit the spark that saved America from criminality of the highest order.
This article originally appeared in the New Pittsburgh Courier.