During my FBI career, there have been many times when I was asked to reconcile my role as a Black female special agent with the FBI’s history of using covert “dirty tricks” to record Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s private life.
When in Washington, DC, for the FBI Agents Associations G-Man Honors event in November, I went to visit the MLK Memorial.
This may sound strange to you, but I joined the FBI despite what I had heard about Director Hoover. At the time, his reputation for upholding civil rights and racial equality was quite negative. During my 26-year career, I never expressed my personal thoughts out loud.
The mixed emotions regarding Director Hoover felt by minority agents are often misunderstood, and sometimes even dismissed.
An FBI colleague defending Director Hoover’s honor recently told me about an incident that happened during his career. A newly trained agent, a Black female, in his presence, dared to make a disparaging remark about the former leader of the Bureau. She had caught his image staring down at her from a portrait hung in an FBI conference room. The older white agent told me how he pulled her aside and admonished her for her disrespect toward the man who had created the greatest law enforcement agency in the world. He didn’t bother to find out why she said the things she said or felt the way she did. He never said her name, but my heart hurt for her. She had received an early warning that her viewpoint was not valued. What the senior agent failed to see was the importance of diversity, to welcome different perspectives. The more diverse an agency like the FBI is, the more effective and stronger it is. If, at the time of civil unrest, the FBI ranks were more representative of all the communities it served, perhaps these injustices would not have occurred. Who knows?
Did you know FBI Director Christopher Wray has continued the mandate, started by Former Direct James Comey, for all new FBI trainees to visit the MLK Memorial as part of their mandatory FBI Academy training?
Some applaud this show of respect, some disagree.
While producing FBI Retired Case File Review, I have conducted several interviews that had touched on the FBI’s investigation of Dr. King. I have also watched many documentaries, including the film MLK/FBI reviewed in an earlier post.
Physical and electronic surveillance methods employed and legal at the time included wiretaps and bugs in hotel rooms to record and document salacious and intimate details of Dr. King’s personal activities. These efforts were part of Director Hoover’s Counter Intelligence Program, known as COINTELPRO. The program’s activities were directed against whoever Director Hoover considered enemies of the U.S. Government, to include members of the Communist Party and activist organization. The program was later deemed illegal and the FBI’s reputation was severely damaged by the campaign to conduct surveillance, infiltrate, discredit, and disrupt domestic American political organizations. You can view the FBI files on the investigation of Dr. King here.
What I have learned from my research pulled me to stand before Dr. King’s image at the MLK Memorial to acknowledge the man that I admired was not perfect and to accept that the agency I love had committed such egregious actions.
To justify what the FBI did, some will bring up Dr. King’s suspected association with communist sympathizers and subversive and radical groups. There is no justification for attempting to destroy a man’s life in order to avert threats to domestic security. None.
Acknowledging mistakes of the past are crucial to establishing racial justice in the United States and diversity and inclusion in FBI recruitment.
I’m not here to vilify Director Hoover. Based on recent news reports, I can’t help but think about and respect the firm foundation he built for the Bureau. Local and state law enforcement also benefited from his desire to make policing more professional and legally consistent. I’ve always seen the FBI institution as a critical parent, demanding the very best from members of the FBI family. During his time, Director Hoover expected strict adherence to policies and procedures which formed into the FBI mindset, “don’t embarrass the Bureau.” In the past, this edict was enough to persuade individual employees to carry themselves as if they represent the entire FBI, because, to the public, we do. I have to admit the institutional fear instilled by Hoover seems to be dissipating, and it’s not necessarily a good thing.
To learn more about the FBI’s history as it relates to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and African American special agents, you can listen to the following FBI Retired Case File Review episodes: