OPINION: The J. Edgar Hoover and FBI with whom Black America are most familiar  

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Two weeks ago, Professor Beverly Gage was in Jackson to discuss her new book, “G – Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century.” The book itself is comprehensive and spans the entire life of Hoover, although the vast majority of it discusses his performance as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Gage’s discussion of the book was both lively and informative. It covered things with which many informed Americans were familiar. It also, however, covered things that few would know. Among the familiar things were the fact that Hoover was the longest serving FBI director, spanning from its beginning as the Bureau of Investigation in 1924 through his death in 1972. (He served under Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon.) He remained single throughout his life. He was born and grew up in Washington D.C. He literally built the FBI as an agency. He often investigated and expressed negative opinions of many Black American leaders. Finally, he was strongly anti-Communist. 

On the other hand, Gage’s book discusses the fact that most of Hoover’s background was conservative in terms of race and religion. While in college, he joined Kappa Alpha, a fraternity that literally worshiped Robert B. Lee and the Confederate South. Most of his friends and many of the people whom he recruited for the FBI were of that mindset. He retained close ties with Lyndon Johnson and many other southern political leaders throughout his career. (Throughout his lifetime, Virginia and Maryland, as well as D.C., were segregationist territories which never bothered him.)

In much of her discussion, Gage pointed to things that enabled her during the question/answer session to admit that Hoover was a racist. For examples, she began the discussion with the anonymous FBI letter written to Dr. Martin Luther King; pointed out that Hoover was opposed to hiring Black FBI agents; and related that he insisted that Black movements for civil rights were communist-inspired and perhaps led by the Communist Party. She also talked briefly about the COINTELPRO initiative which began to disrupt and destroy such Black liberation groups as the Black Panther Party and the Republic of New Africa.

Coming away from the book review, however, many of the Black members of the audience felt that Hoover had been given a pass; that he had not been objectively judged. Several areas of their concern were Gage’s statement that the FBI under Hoover had destroyed the KKK and that too little was made of the FBI’s destruction of Black freedom struggles.

The J. Edgar Hoover and FBI that Black America had gotten to know did not destroy the KKK. The KKK and other terrorist groups continued to exist and carry-out murder and mayhem throughout the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, while the FBI often did little successful investigating and even less law-enforcing in their cases. Hundreds of Black lives were destroyed, with their bodies being discovered during the latter half of the 1960s. In many local KKK chapters, the FBI infiltrated but did not prevent murders and other civil rights violations. Furthermore, on one of its most celebrated cases, it was only as a result of the “volunteered” information of Choctaw people that the bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were discovered. Many Black people have had little confidence in the FBI as an ally in protecting their lives and civil rights.

On the other hand, it had become clear since the days of Paul Robeson, Marcus Garvey, and Elijah Muhammad that Hoover and the FBI were as determined to prevent the rising of any “Black liberator” as local whites had been during and after Reconstruction. Black people had witnessed lives lost and reputations destroyed by the actions of the FBI. Many Black people had become literally afraid of the FBI, not wanting to talk with agents and fearing that at any moment they could be framed and convicted for their political and civil rights ideas and activities. 

Through it all, Hoover remained quite popular among the white citizens and the mainstream press. Although the Black Press lambasted him through the years, he remained a darling of the mainstream press. One poll, taken in the late 1960s, had 50% of Americans supporting Hoover, compared to 16% supporting Martin Luther King as Hoover began publicly attacking King. All of this was reflective of white America’s racism. 

Yes, the FBI that Black America had come to know was far worse than the so-called federal investigators that Hoover may have dreamed about. Even with a few Black agents added to the bureau, many Black people today are leery and wonder to what extent the agency has changed. It was born and baptized in the white supremacy of the likes of Robert E. Lee and will likely take generations to overcome that heritage and stench as it operates in the 21st century.

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OPINION: The J. Edgar Hoover and FBI with whom Black America are most familiar  

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
November 12, 2023