In this unusual political year, there has been an effort by some in high places to make Black History Month a celebration of white contributions to racial progress. But not all white contributions have been toward progress. This is the second in a series of biographical sketches that present a different narrative of historic events.
J. Edgar Hoover was never elected to any office. Yet, for decades, he wielded as much power as any person in the United States.
That power was grounded in his leadership of the FBI and his willingness to engage in blackmail and a variety of other criminal practices to protect his power. Despite widespread knowledge of his corruption and misdeeds, his name continues to adorn FBI headquarters in Washington.
In 1948, a quarter century before his death in office, President Truman said, “We want no Gestapo or secret police. The FBI is tending in that direction.”
Black people were a favorite target of Hoover’s FBI. Most famous is his crusade to destroy Dr. Martin Luther King, but his efforts went much further back, beginning with his – eventually successful – campaign to bring down Marcus Garvey.
In addition to his “ordinary” day-to-day bigotry, as the legal scholar Randall Kennedy has said, Hoover “viewed protest against white domination as tending toward treason.”
This view of the world led Hoover, the most famous and powerful law enforcement official in American history, to align himself with all of the forces of racial oppression, mostly but not entirely in the segregationist South. And, while Hoover is most known for his high profile anti-black efforts – Garvey, Dr. King and the Black Panthers – he may have done his greatest damage not through action, but through inaction. And not with high profile targets, but by refusing to protect the basic human rights of “ordinary” black citizens.
Most Americans believe that slavery ended with emancipation and the South’s defeat in the Civil War. As Douglas Blackmon documents in his extraordinary 2008 book (“Slavery By Another Name,”) black Americans were re-enslaved throughout the South all the way up to the Second World War. The new slavery was known as “peonage,” and, in 1942, U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle, a deeply conservative man, ordered the FBI to begin labeling cases that came to them for what they were: “involuntary servitude and slavery.” Hoover ignored the order, simply stating that “No active investigation will be instituted.”
These cases were not about prominent people. They were, as Blackmon points out, about tens of thousands of human lives that were destroyed. And about a leader, J. Edgar Hoover, who did nothing about it because he didn’t care about those lives.
Similarly, in the march from Selma to Montgomery, when marchers were viciously attacked by local criminals and local law enforcement, the only protection that the protesters could look to was the federal government. It wasn’t there. Three white men were arrested, for an altercation with an FBI agent.
At every stage in his life and career, Hoover worked to undermine black progress. Because he hated communists as much as he hated black people, he conflated the two, seeking to prove that the civil rights movement was communist dominated. In addition to seeking to destroy Dr. King’s reputation, he seemed to want to see a successful assassination. His secret police infiltrated black organizations, in the early days recruiting what he called “reliable Negroes” and, in its later version, organizing “ghetto listening posts.”
His last two crusades, against Dr. King and the Black Panthers, contained actions that feel very much like Putin’s Russia. His treatment of press critics who dared to expose even the smallest of his misdeeds also carry a warning for our times. When a columnist wrote a mildly critical piece, Hoover’s aides proposed to “set her straight.” Hoover wrote a note, “No, she is a bitch, and nothing will be gained.”
There are two schools of thought on J. Edgar Hoover. The first is the great crime fighter who, sure, he had his flaws, but … And the second is that’s all ancient history, why dredge it up now.
The larger question is, how ancient is it, really?