MLK/FBI (Dir. Sam Pollard, 2020)
Like many folks, I’d heard for most of my life that civil rights activist icon Martin Luther King Jr. was the target of intense surveillance by the FBI, but I was unaware of the full extent of the Bureau’s secret campaign. Sam Pollard’s new documentary, MLK/FBI, releasing today on the anniversary of King’s Birthday, explores in excellent depth how it all went down.
A few lines of capitalized text tell us at the beginning of the film that “By exposing the secrets of his private life, the FBI hoped to humiliate King, and weaken his authority as a leader.” The intro goes on to say that, “Now, thanks to newly declassified documents much of their intelligence in available to the public.”
The narrative kicks off with the historic March on Washington in 1963, the occasion of King’s rousing “I Have a Dream” speech, as it was the event that prompted the FBI, particularly FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and the FBI’s head of domestic intelligence, William C. Sullivan, to determine that King was “the most dangerous negro in the future of our Nation,” and that they must “use every resource at our disposal to destroy him.”
The doc backtracks to 1956 to give us background on one of the first major fights of the movement which involved segregation, and how King met Stanley Levison, a Jewish lawyer from New York, who became an important advisor to the Reverend. As Levison had ties to the Communist Party, this alarmed the Feds, and they began wiretapping the man’s phones, and bugging his office and hotel rooms. This investigation led to doing the same to King, but instead of the Feds finding subversive info, they discover that their subject has been engaged in a series of infidelities with many various girlfriends.
MLK/FBI swiftly shuffles through such events as King’s meetings with JFK, RFK, and Hoover; the criticism King received for speaking out against the war in Vietnam, the infiltration of King’s and other black organizations by FBI informants, and, of course, the assassination of MLK, through scores of archival photos, lots of well chosen historical footage (some of which I wasn’t familiar with) smartly blended with clips from appropriate period films like THE FBI STORY, WALK A CROOKED MILE, and BIG JIM McCLAIN.
And there are insights aplenty from such interviewees as King associates Andrew Young, and Clarence Jones; David J. Carrow, whose book The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr.: From Solo to Memphis provides this film’s basis, and former FBI director James Comey, who remarks, “I think this entire episode represents the darkest part of the Bureau’s history.”
It’s an extremely engrossing history lesson, but one doesn’t have to be a history buff to appreciate Pollard’s examination of how one of America’s greatest moral leaders was scrutinized by a shady agency during an overwhelmingly tumultuous time. MLK/FBI is as essential as a historical documentary can and should be.