Now that the Confederate flag has been furled at South Carolina’s Capitol, it’s time to deal with another symbolic insult to minorities and the Constitution—the one inscribed over the door of the nation’s top law-enforcement agency.
A consummate bureaucrat and institution-builder, J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s first director, was also a paranoid obsessive who put together a rogue secret service accountable only to himself. His clandestine harassment of civil-rights activists and his illegal surveillance of political dissidents are well known, but the extent of his persecution of homosexuals is only now coming to light. In 1951, he launched a program to identify and expose homosexuals working in government. (“Each Supervisor will be held personally responsible to underline in green pencil the names of individuals mentioned in any report, letter, memorandum, newspaper article or other communication who are alleged to be sex deviates. This will assure proper indexing by the Records Section.”) By the time the program ended, in the 1970s, the bureau had collected more than 360,000 files on Americans suspected of being gay or lesbian. Dwight Eisenhower was still president-elect when Hoover confronted him with evidence that one of Eisenhower’s senior aides was gay, getting the aide fired and implicitly warning Ike not to cross the FBI. A few months later, the new president banned gays from all government jobs, an injustice not righted until 1975.
Congress named the FBI headquarters for Hoover in 1972, shortly after he died. “It is a stain and it is a shame,” says Charles Francis, the president of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., a gay-rights advocacy group that has done much to call attention to Hoover’s abuses. “That name needs to come down.”
As it happens, the government is planning to move the FBI from its brutalist building on Pennsylvania Avenue to a new home in the D.C. suburbs. Hoover’s name, according to an FBI spokesman, will not automatically convey. In deciding what to call the new facility, Congress will be required to confront Hoover’s legacy. Some traditionalists, in much the same manner as Confederate-flag defenders, will insist that the status quo commemorates a noble, if flawed, history. They should be ignored. The Martin Luther King Jr. FBI Building has the ring of justice to me.