Why does the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation still bear the name of J. Edgar Hoover?
Those who continue to hold Hoover in high esteem are a diminishing lot of so-called "true believers." Any merits of his more than 40 years of service are outweighed by a legacy marred by power run amok.
Hoover amassed power that extended well beyond presidential authority. In his position as FBI Director, he was allowed to place a premium on his personal feelings to, at times, circumvent the Constitution.
There are many examples of why Hoover deserves persona non grata status in the annals of American history; perhaps the most egregious was his treatment of Martin Luther King Jr.
The FBI file on King exceeds 17,000 pages. Numerous documents have been censored, with many pages redacted. Moreover, because of a court order, any information resulting from FBI wiretaps has been removed and will not be released until 2027, and that information comprises an extensive record of King's day-to-day activities.
Hoover's obsessive resentment toward the civil-rights movement in general, and King in particular, made President Richard Nixon's infamous "dirty tricks" look like child's play.
As the life of King and others in the movement became increasingly in danger, Hoover maintained that the Bureau was "not a protection agency." He ordered agents to avoid direct intervention, limiting their activities to observation at any civil-rights demonstrations.
During the Freedom Riders campaign in 1961, Hoover did not pass along intelligence received from a Klansman informant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy about the planned May 14 riot at the bus-station terminal in Birmingham. The result? A Klan-led mob brutally attacked unarmed civil-rights protesters unfettered.
Though Bureau surveillance of King began in 1958, it intensified on Aug. 28, 1963, when he was the keynote speaker at the March on Washington. As King was telling the nation about his "dream," top Hoover aide William Sullivan sent a memo stating:
[I]n the light of King's powerful demagogic speech ... [w]e must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.
In October, Attorney General Robert Kennedy approved Hoover's request granting him carte blanche surveillance on King that lasted until his assassination on April 4, 1968.
In June 1963, after President John F. Kennedy called for civil-rights legislation, operating on information provided by Hoover, he was concerned about communist infiltration within King's organization. Kennedy took King into the Rose Garden and demanded that he fire suspected communists Stanley Levison and Jack O'Dell before Kennedy would send any civil-rights legislation to Congress.
Though the threat of communism during the height of the Cold War justified Hoover's actions, no evidence was ever found to substantiate such charges against King. What Hoover did uncover was King's extramarital affairs, which the FBI, under Hoover's leadership, graciously sent to King's wife, Coretta.
Yale professor Beverly Gage, who is writing a book on Hoover, recently stumbled across a letter in Hoover's confidential files. It was the unredacted version of a 1964 letter sent to King, calling him an "evil, abnormal beast," suggesting that the civil-rights leader should commit suicide before receiving his Nobel Prize for Peace.
It is a macabre and paradoxical narrative, where the civil-rights movement, endowed by the 14th Amendment, was forced to confront local municipalities that had the support of state governments, while receiving tepid support from the Kennedy administration and more support from the Johnson administration, all while garnering ongoing hostility from the Hoover-led FBI.
In 1956 in a closed session of the Communist Party, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev denounced former dictator Joseph Stalin. Among other charges, Khrushchev accused Stalin of executing, torturing and imprisoning loyal party members on false charges.
Is it not time for America to follow Khrushchev's example? Doesn't Hoover's legacy deserve a proper burial?
He remains the embodiment of what can happen when an unaccountable public servant is allowed to venture beyond the scope or his or her duties in order to feed their nefarious obsessions.
If the third Monday in January honors the life of King, is it not oxymoronic, as well as a national embarrassment, for Hoover' name to adorn FBI headquarters?