The University has long heralded J. Edgar Hoover as one of its most prestigious alumni. He held a long and storied career in American politics, with jobs in the government spanning eight U.S. presidents and agencies ranging from the U.S. Department of Justice to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. As the first director of the FBI from 1935 to 1972, he expanded the organization and its capabilities tenfold, changing the future of law enforcement for generations.
Looking only at his resume, it’s not hard to see why administrators hang his portrait at the entrance of Gelman Library. He seems to be the perfect example of a GW student – an intelligent, dedicated public servant. But the United States’ reckoning with race and policing have shed light on some of Hoover’s less glamorous qualities. And it’s because of these sins – like his active fight against the advancement of civil rights and efforts to frame civil rights leaders as communists – that GW must rescind Hoover’s law degrees and remove his portrait from Gelman.
A full view of Hoover must take into account his most egregious attacks. His first prominent target was Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican man who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association with the goal of creating a sense of pride and unity among African Americans and the end goal of creating a new independent Black nation in Africa. Hoover was convinced that he posed a threat to the United States and during the first Red Scare in 1919 tried to paint Garvey as a communist to put him in jail. But after sending four agents to infiltrate the UNIA, Hoover came up empty-handed, leading him to pursue Garvey on charges of spying before finally arresting him for mail fraud. Hoover was clearly trying to hinder the growing Black nationalist movement, a blatant attack on the precursor to the civil rights movement. A true alumnus worthy of a portrait and praise would have used this position of immense power to help in the fight for equality, not hinder it.
Moving forward, in 1955, Hoover created a system of covert and illegal surveillance tactics known today as the Counter-Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, to infiltrate and discredit American political organizations. During the 1960s, Hoover used COINTELPRO to target and surveil civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X and groups inspired by their thoughts, like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Black Panther Party. His active surveillance of these groups was a futile attempt to undermine their legitimacy and cripple the civil rights movement. Hoover tried to discredit King personally by telling the Kennedy family that King had tried to arrange a sex party during the March on Washington and had made derogatory comments about assassinated President John F. Kennedy during his funeral. Hoover sent a now-infamous anonymous letter to King in 1964 in which he claimed knowledge about King’s sexual life and threatened to release details in an attempt to convince King to take his own life. One would hope that GW would not idolize a figure who attempted to make King commit suicide, yet his portrait continues to hang in Gelman.
Today we face a new racial climate in the United States. Many people are for the first time confronting centuries of oppression they’d chosen to ignore. As a result, shameful details about storied historical figures are rearing their ugly head to share the truth with the world. Hoover is among these figures, and in the past, the University has seemed to ignore the unsavory details in its representation of one of its most notable alumni. But in reconciliation with that shameful history, the University should denounce Hoover’s irredeemable actions and revoke his law degrees. Ultimately, his use of them did not comport with GW’s philosophy of just public service. Officials should also remove Hoover’s portrait from Gelman Library, where it hangs for all who enter to see. Hoover represents a perversion of the government’s power which the University must condemn if it wishes to find solidarity with its Black students.
Some may say that the University is not responsible for the actions of its students long dead, but GW would not be alone in acting to right a historical wrong. Just recently, Georgetown University pledged to create a fund to provide financial reconciliation to the descendants of 272 Black people sold into slavery by Jesuits in 1838 to keep Georgetown afloat financially. Monmouth and Princeton universities in the past month announced steps to strip the name of racist former President Woodrow Wilson from campus fixtures. The current political environment is the perfect backdrop for GW to take a similar act of solidarity.
We must remove that portrait and cut ties to Hoover, including the degrees he holds. Only then can the University claim they carry the best interest of their minority students at heart.
Kyle Anderson, a rising sophomore majoring in political science and criminal justice, is an opinions writer.
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This article appeared in the July 10, 2020 issue of the Hatchet.