Did you know FBI Director Christopher Wray has continued the mandate, initiated by Former Direct James Comey, for all new FBI trainees to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial as part of their mandatory FBI Academy training? Some applaud this show of respect to a great man, some disagree. To understand why both directors believe we need to learn lessons from this time in the FBI’s history, I suggest that you, as well as all FBI agents, active and retired, watch MLK/FBI currently streaming on Amazon Prime. The documentary chronicles former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s investigation into the political affiliations of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Watch the trailer here.
During the investigation, physical and electronic surveillance methods were used to document Dr. King’s activities, including wiretaps and bugs in hotel rooms. These recordings are said to reveal intimate details of Dr. King’s private life. The covert “dirty tricks” used to gather this salacious information was 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.
During the film, MLK/FBI, historians, civil rights leaders, and FBI officials are interviewed. FBI internal files, reports, and surveillance memos are also presented as verification for information discussed. The main FBI file on the investigation of Reverend King, file number 100-106670, is available for the public to review at The Vault—the FBI’s Freedom Of Information and Privacy Act Library. If you decide to visit the FBI Vault, be aware that you may find some content offensive and disturbing. Audio recordings will not be made available to the public until 2027.
The FBI website contains the following disclaimer: the content of the files in the Vault encompasses all time periods of Bureau history and do not always reflect the current views, policies, and priorities of the FBI.
I thought the documentary was fair and balanced, although, at times, I found myself cringing as I confronted the facts presented regarding a man I admire and the agency in which I proudly served for 26 years. Acknowledging mistakes of the past are crucial to establishing racial justice in the United States and diversity and inclusion in FBI recruitment. As an institution, I believe we can hold the FBI as a symbol of justice and equality. I’ve always been honest about the difficulties I experienced during my first four years in the FBI. These were unpleasant incidents with individuals, co-workers and bosses, that were based on my race and gender that made me consider quitting the FBI. That was my reality, no doubt the lingering atmosphere and mindset of the Hoover era agents I encountered early in my career. But I persevered, and I’m so very happy that I did.
The FBI is the primary law enforcement agency responsible for investigating violations of federal civil rights. Current FBI Director Christopher Wray recently said, “Civil rights investigations are at the heart of what we do in the FBI, for the simple reason that civil rights and civil liberties are at the very heart of who we are as Americans. These investigations have been a critical part of our work in the FBI for decades, and that will never change.”
Listen to the following episodes to learn about the FBI role today in investigating civil rights violations:
Based on my review of MLK/FBI, I’m sure there are those who wonder what my stand is on the renaming of the FBI Headquarters building. At this time, in spite of his overreaching investigative policies and actions, I recognize that former Director Hoover’s tenure as the agency’s longest serving leader (37 years) created the foundation of what the FBI is today, a highly trained, disciplined, law enforcement agency resistant to corruption and political influence. I believe that his name should remain on the current building and any newly erected FBI headquarters. However, I reserve the right to change my mind.