Black lawmakers want to strip J. Edgar Hoover’s name from the proposed new FBI headquarters because they think he was a racist, outraging longtime agents who say America’s culture of political correctness and victimhood has gone too far.
The fight is bursting into public view again as the FBI inches toward building a new headquarters, a plan that has been simmering for nearly a decade.
“J. Edgar Hoover was an abomination on our history,” said Rep. Karen Bass, California Democrat and chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “I think they should find a name more reputable than J. Edgar Hoover. I mean, all that came out about him after his death: the way he threatened people, what he did in the African American community, what he did to Martin Luther King, what he did to the LGBT community, I could go on and on.”
But former agents say the legacy of the FBI’s first and longest-serving director has been unfairly demonized. They say Hoover’s civil rights record is solid and cite his willingness to send FBI agents to the South to help blacks vote and his opposition to Japanese internment camps during World War II.
“As a former agent, I am disappointed in the FBI for not doing more to defend Mr. Hoover’s legacy,” said William D. Brannon, a 30-year FBI veteran and chairman of the J. Edgar Hoover Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the legacy of Hoover through scholarships to underprivileged college students.
Since his death in 1972, Hoover’s legacy has been mixed. Critics say he harassed civil rights leaders, discriminated against gay federal workers and amassed incriminating evidence to blackmail political figures. His supporters point to his extraordinary efforts to modernize law enforcement. Creating the FBI’s fingerprint database and bringing forensic science into criminal investigations are among his accomplishments.
The FBI declined to comment on whether the Hoover name will survive the transition to a new headquarters.
Determined to prove the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was under the influence of communists, the FBI kept the civil rights leader under constant surveillance from the mid-1950s until his 1968 assassination. Although FBI wiretaps did not uncover communist ties, the bureau did discover lurid details about King’s sex life.
Historians have suggested Hoover spied on King to discredit him and derail the civil rights movement. Tens of thousands of FBI documents released years ago detail the bureau’s animosity toward the civil rights leader. One memo describes King as an “unprincipled opportunistic individual,” and another calls him “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country.”
“J. Edgar Hoover’s legacy of counterintelligence programs was very disruptive to African American leadership in the black community along with other minority communities,” said Rep. Andre Carson, Indiana Democrat, who said he contacted the FBI years ago about changing the name of its headquarters.
In 1964, Hoover called King “the most notorious liar in the country,” which led to a meeting between the two. Andrew King, a longtime aide of King, has publicly stated that there “was not even an attitude of hostility” during the meeting.
Mr. Brannon said Hoover got an unfair rap for spying on the civil rights leader and noted that the wiretap warrants were approved by then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
Within the bureau, Hoover’s record on race is complicated. The bureau hired its first black agent in 1919, nearly a full 20 years before the military integrated. A handful of blacks worked as agents for the FBI in the 1920s, but the bureau’s illustrious academy did not accept its first black candidate until 1962.
“If you look at the history of the FBI, they really didn’t encourage diversity until 1972 or 1973 when we started hiring female agents,” said Lew Schiliro, a former head of the FBI’s New York field office. “It’s unfair to lay that all on Hoover because it was a reflection of the times he was in.”
Previous efforts to remove Hoover’s name from the FBI headquarters gained little traction. Rep. Steve Cohen, Tennessee Democrat, introduced legislation to expunge Hoover’s name in 2015, but the measure didn’t go anywhere. A year later, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, wrote to the General Services Administration saying it would be a mistake to name a new building after the controversial director.
Former agents said the FBI would be turning its back on the agency’s history if it abandons the Hoover name.
Hoover transformed a bureau tarnished by corruption and incompetence, creating a strict code of conduct and a stringent hiring process for agents.
“He really is the father of modern law enforcement,” said John F. McCaffrey, director of the J. Edgar Hoover Institute and a former agent. “We need to recognize that. He did things like establish an identification division, he brought science to law enforcement. He may have had his shortcomings, but his accomplishments were tremendous, and we want to see him recognized.”
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus who spoke with The Washington Times were largely opposed to keeping Hoover’s name.
“Hell, no,” said Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, Louisiana Democrat.
But one Congressional Black Caucus member, Rep. Val Butler Demings, Florida Democrat, said it should be up to the agents to decide whether the bureau will continue to honor Hoover.
“I think it’s really important to understand how the men and women of the bureau feel about the first FBI director,” she said. “I think it’s really important to listen to them.”
Mr. Schiliro said most agents would oppose any name change.
“You have to honor tradition and history regardless of the faults people might have,” he said. “Agents of my generation are just profoundly against something like this. J. Edgar Hoover was the FBI for so many years. To wipe out that sense of tradition and history would be a huge mistake.”