J. Edgar Hoover’s name–synonymous with illegal government intrusion, abuse of power, and warrantless surveillance and harassment of activists and politicians–is a stain on the FBI, and must be stripped from the agency’s headquarters.
Hoover habitually used the FBI’s extensive surveillance power to collect damaging information on leaders and activists, and kept the most scurrilous data under his personal control. He used his possession of these files to maintain his position as FBI director and to intimidate, accuse, and discredit enemies. In an unsigned 1964 letter to Martin Luther King, later verified by the Church Committee, Hoover implies having intimate knowledge of King’s sex life, and suggests that the doctor should kill himself: “There is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is.”
In 1951, at the height of the Cold War, Hoover ordered his agents to identify every suspected gay working for the government, launching a massive effort to secretly compile the names of thousands of gay and lesbian Americans. More than 360,000 files were collected as part of the Sex Deviates program, which continued well into the 1970s. These files were used to blackmail and intimidate suspected “sex perverts,” compromising unknown numbers of careers and lives.
The current FBI director, James Comey, keeps a copy of Hoover’s wiretap request on Martin Luther King on his desk as a reminder of the agency’s ability to do evil. Today, the FBI has more power at its disposal to keep Americans safe than ever before. Why do we continue to honor a man who routinely used that power to undermine democratic institutions and principles?