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Congressman says J. Edgar Hoover was the “opposite of justice,” wants name off FBI headquarters

The J. Edgar Hoover Building, headquarters of the FBI. The building would be torn down if the FBI moves, but a congressman believes the name should be changed now. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

There are a litany of problems with the J. Edgar Hoover Building, which is why the FBI has spent more than a decade pushing for a new headquarters.

A congressman overseeing the bureau puts the building’s name at the top of the list.

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) introduced legislation last week that would strip the name of the agency’s longtime former director from the building. Hoover was among the most famous and powerful federal officials during his 37-year reign atop the FBI, but his aggressive and warrentless surveillance of civil rights leaders has since been well-chronicled.

[The FBI’s headquarters is falling apart. Why is it so hard for America to build a new one?]

When FBI Director James B. Comey came to testify at a House Judiciary Committee hearing last week, Cohen raised his concerns about Hoover having done “some awful terrible things, in his life and as FBI director,” calling the former director “abusive” and “the opposite of justice.”

Cohen cited Hoover’s treatment of Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in Cohen’s hometown of Memphis. Hoover once wrote a vicious letter to King, calling him an “evil, abnormal beast” as well as “a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that.”

The congressman also said at the hearing that Hoover referred to gays as “sex deviants” and attempted to root them from jobs at the FBI and the federal government.

“His efforts to silence Dr. King and out homosexuals working for the government were deplorable and a stain on our nation’s history and on the FBI,” Cohen said.

“J. Edgar Hoover was a man that doesn’t reflect the good people of the FBI, or reflect what you and the FBI are trying to do today,” Cohen told Comey.

Cohen asked Comey if Hoover’s legacy reflected the FBI’s current commitment to fairness and justice.

Comey responded by saying he keeps a copy of Hoover’s letter to King in his desk “to make sure people understand the danger in becoming — in falling in love with your own view of things and the danger in the absence of constraint and oversight.”

The current director opted against weighing in on whether Hoover’s name belonged on the side of the building however, saying a historian would be better equipped to take a full measure of the man.

“Hoover did a lot of good things for law enforcement in the United States, did a lot of things that through the lens of history, we reject as improper…I’m no historian,” Comey said.

Fourteen other Democrats joined Cohen in introducing the bill, according to his office, and the measure was transferred to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Only one member from Virginia or Maryland joined the effort, Don Beyer (D-Va.). The two states are competing to become the next home to the FBI headquarters.

This story has been updated to show that Rep. Beyer and two additional members signed on. 

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz