The death of Dick Gregory in the midst of a national controversy over statuary honoring Confederate generals prompts me to suggest that we eliminate another affront to evolving national standards of decency — J. Edgar Hoover’s name on the FBI building in Washington, D.C.
Although the connection between Gregory and Hoover has escaped the attention of Gregory’s obituary writers, it is telling and, by itself, makes the case that Hoover’s name never should adorn an object of national reverence.
I know the story because, in response to a Freedom of Information request I made in 1978, the FBI released roughly 13,000 pages of documents relating to FBI counterintelligence operations against African Americans during the 1960’s.
Among the documents I received was a memorandum dated May 15, 1968, from Hoover to the special agent in charge of the Chicago FBI office suggesting that, because Gregory had referred to members of the crime syndicate, known as La Cosa Nostra (LCN), as “the filthiest snakes that exist on earth,” the Chicago office should consider developing “a counterintelligence operation to alert La Cosa Nostra to Gregory’s attack on LCN.”
Stunned, I contacted Gregory, who then was living in Plymouth, Mass., and he asked me to meet with him and show him the document when he would be passing through Chicago a few days later. When we met, he shook his head and said, “Oh God, this is just incredible.”
Gregory read the memorandum over and over, and then asked me rhetorically, “Do you realize what you have here?” And he answered, “This piece of paper has the most powerful police agency in the history of this planet proposing that they contact the Mafia so that they could work together.”
There was no indication in the 13,000 pages of documents that any action was taken in response to the memo, and the then head of the Chicago office, Marlin W. Johnson, told me he did not recall the memo.
But the memorandum itself makes the case that stripping Hoover’s name from the FBI building would be a fitting legacy both for Gregory, who exemplified the best of American values, and for Hoover, who exemplified the worst.