The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has its headquarters in a building on Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C. That building is officially called the J. Edgar Hoover F.B.I. Building. John Edgar Hoover served as Director of the FBI from May 10, 1924 until May 2, 1972, the day he died. Two days after his death, then-President Richard M. Nixon signed the law that gave the building Hoover’s name.
Edgar Hoover began working for the Department of Justice in 1917. He continued to work there for 55 years, and spent 48 of those years running the FBI. Based on his longevity of service, it might seem natural that the headquarters building should bear his name. Or, if you know anything about Hoover’s actions while serving as FBI Director, it might not.
On October 22, 2015, Congressman Steve Cohen (D-TN-09) introduced legislation that seeks to wipe Hoover’s name off the front of the building. Why? Rep. Cohen himself explains it best in a letter to his constituents, writing that the “civil rights we enjoy today are in spite of J. Edgar Hoover, not because of him.” Cohen goes on to cite Hoover’s deplorable targeting of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and such civil rights organizations as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in the 1960s.
These operations were part of the Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) started by Hoover in 1956. For an example of the unnecessary but titillating intelligence collected by the program, see the file on movie star Rock Hudson, which frequently mentions his “homosexual tendencies.” Thankfully, COINTELPRO ended in 1971.
The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover cared a lot about homosexuality. As Rep. Cohen notes in his letter, Hoover led a secret crusade against employing homosexuals in the federal government. The 30-minute documentary, “Uniquely Nasty: The U.S. Government’s War on Gays,” reported by journalist Michael Isikoff, provides insights and details about this campaign. As Isikoff notes, a 1951 memo from Hoover to his agents “launched . . . a massive effort to secretly collect the names of thousands of gay and lesbian Americans.” The purpose of the witch hunt: to fire those individuals. This is the J. Edgar Hoover whose name adorns the FBI Headquarters. This is the man who famously said, “Justice is merely incidental to law and order.”
Hoover’s leadership is held in low regard today. As Beverly Gage reported in The New York Times Magazine on November 11, 2014, “current FBI Director, James Comey, keeps a copy of the King wiretap request on his desk as a reminder of the bureau’s capacity to do wrong.” Even the FBI’s own web site includes the statement: “COINTELPRO was later rightfully criticized by Congress and the American people for abridging first amendment rights and for other reasons.” That’s not exactly a resounding condemnation of Hoover, but it is something. Rep. Cohen uses stronger words in his October 22, 2015 press release. He says of Hoover, “Given his well-documented abuses and prejudices towards African Americans, gays, and lesbians, I believe it is past time to remove his name from this place of honor.”
But what name to put there instead? We have an idea—how about the recently deceased former Rep. Don Edwards (D-CA)? A great friend of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (BORDC), Don Edwards was a champion of civil rights and fought against illegal domestic surveillance. Edwards worked as an FBI agent before entering politics, and he was not a fan of J. Edgar Hoover. According to a New York Times article published when he died, Edwards “led successful fights to curb the F.B.I.’s surveillance activities and used his subcommittee to bury proposed constitutional amendments on flag-burning, busing, abortion and a balanced federal budget.” In 1991, he introduced a bill that BORDC calls the “real First Amendment Defense Act.”
So far, the FBI First Amendment Protection Act has not been passed, and the March 13, 2013 FBI proposal for a new consolidated headquarters building, which calls the Hoover building “obsolete, inefficient, and expensive,” has not seen a green light, either. Perhaps, when there is a new building, it will be the Don Edwards Building, and perhaps the Edwards Amendment, described here, will be restored. That would make justice a bit less incidental.