Justice  /  Book Excerpt

How Hoover Took Down the Klan

The FBI’s successful campaign against white supremacists is also a cautionary tale.

Over the next few years, Hoover’s FBI waged a ruthless campaign against the Klan, successfully disrupting the organization. As the federal government again confronts violent white supremacism, it can learn two things from that earlier campaign. The first is that right-wing extremism can indeed be tackled by the serious and sustained efforts of law-enforcement agencies. The second is no less important: When those agencies exploit their power to disregard constitutional liberties and basic rights, their efforts to secure justice can serve to undermine it. COINTELPRO is deservedly notorious for its abuses and excesses, especially its targeting of civil-rights and anti-war groups. And Hoover is deservedly notorious for his racism, which took root early on and lasted to the end of his life. The little-known story of the COINTELPRO campaign against the Klan does not upend either of those crucial histories. But it does show that even J. Edgar Hoover could be more complicated—and more surprising—than his fearsome reputation might have suggested.

The most notorious program of Hoover’s career was born from his fear that the Supreme Court and the American public were turning against the draconian anti-Communist measures of the Red Scare years. Hoover believed the Communist Party was still a dangerous force, so in 1956 he directed his agents to come up with secret, disruptive methods to destroy it from within. He labeled the new effort a “counterintelligence program”—or COINTELPRO, for short.

Today, COINTELPRO is most often associated with the FBI’s abuses during the 1960s, against the antiwar movement, the Black Panthers, and their New Left allies. The most famous disruptive campaign in FBI history was its surveillance and harassment of Martin Luther King Jr., which began in the early 1960s and continued up until King’s assassination, in 1968. But COINTELPRO began as a program aimed at the Old Left, not the New Left. And it spread its tentacles into the right as well. Hoover saw little contradiction in targeting King and the Klan at the same time. He thought of himself as the great arbiter of American political legitimacy, charged with policing the boundaries of the country’s democratic experiment. Those who pushed to transform the political order—whether through civil-rights protest or revolutionary agitation—were immediately suspect. But so were those who sought to defend it through acts of vigilante violence. Though Hoover was a devout social conservative, he had little patience for groups like the Klan, which openly advertised its contempt for the law and especially for federal law enforcement.