Those are pieces of information we shouldn’t have.
It’s no secret that J. Edgar Hoover surveilled Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the 1960s. Not only was his impact during the civil rights movement too powerful for the long-standing head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to ignore, but we also know King was sent a recording and letter calling for his suicide that only the department could have created. We didn’t, however, know the specific details of how it was accomplished or the series of events that led to it. Thanks to recently declassified files uploaded to the National Archives, those answers have finally been brought to light with historians and those closest to the Baptist minister back then working to piece it all together. Sam Pollard‘s documentary MLK/FBI collects the extensively researched findings.
Inspired by David Garrow‘s book The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis, Benjamin Hedin and Laura Tomaselli have written a thorough treatment getting to the heart of what James Comey calls the “darkest period of the department’s history.” How could it not deserve that title when you listen to phone conversations between Hoover and President Lyndon B. Johnson or see documents signed by Attorney General Robert Kennedy despite he and his brother being on King’s side? The instant that Hoover thought you were a subversive to the way he believed America should run as a white Christian male, you can bet he started a file. Did he think King was such a person? Not originally. Wiretap enough associates and assumptions change.
That’s why this data is crucial despite the fact that it never should have been collected. The FBI let Communist fear and white voter pressure push them and both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to follow a national hero dedicated to non-violence as though he was a terrorist ready to burn the nation down. You can almost forgive their paranoia knowing now just how far our country has fallen on the subject of spying upon private citizens, but not after learning the extent of their practices (paying moles in King’s inner circle) and underhanded motives. That latter point is huge because they weren’t trying to uncover treasonous acts. They were instead compiling dirt with which to expose him as a deviant. That’s how little actionable proof they possessed.
With interviews from Garrow, Andrew Young, Beverly Gage, Marc Perrusquia, Clarence B. Jones, Charles Knox, Donna Murch, and Comey playing above archival footage and thematically relevant clips (the speakers themselves aren’t shown until just before the credits), Pollard systematically dissects the FBI’s expensive and expansive attempt at character assassination—a mission that unintentionally also proves how disinterested they were in preventing a physical assassination considering they were watching and listening to everything during the days leading up to April 4th, 1968. It becomes pretty obvious too that not much has changed in the decades since as similar battles positioning Black Americans as the antithesis to “law and order” persist today. And to hear the biased rhetoric of those in charge of King’s surveillance, it won’t stop any time soon.
It comes down to a question asked by a reporter during one of the many King interviews played on-screen. She wants to know what King would say to people who have begun to resent Black Americans because they feel change is happening too fast. Her words are spoken with such blind ignorance to the fact that their premise is based on the notion that equal rights are now being gifted to Blacks rather than given back after being stolen centuries ago. That King can calmly sit there and provide an eloquent response is a testament to his patience and dedication to the cause. Rather than angrily rip that premise apart, he flips the table and reminds white America that they’re the one’s being gifted a chance to repent.
The evidence to systemic racism is at the core of MLK/FBI from how it reveals Hoover’s expert marketing of the FBI that sainted white jocks in G-Men suits as protectors of the people and how the media vilified King during the Vietnam War for daring to have political opinions “outside his area of expertise.” (“Shut-up and dribble,” anyone?) We watch as the seeds are planted for how government has been warped into a dangerous game of partisan hacks doing more to denigrate marginalized communities than help them up. And we see how wild the spin of disparate perspectives can get when those asked to show decency in one ear are also being told that decency is a trick en route to stealing what’s rightfully theirs in the other.
Pollard’s film is an essential educational tool towards that end. It’s fast-paced, informative, and built with the kind of narrative propulsion that retains our investment with every twist and turn despite knowing how it all ends up. It’s a damningly exhaustive exposé that somehow is still incomplete, though, considering the tapes Hoover’s team made won’t be unsealed until 2027. That’s when this wound will really be ripped open since everything here is more or less a corroboration of what we’ve already guessed. This is the paper trail that proves the FBI’s treachery in collecting tabloid fodder in order to ruin the reputation of a man they deemed to be their enemy. The question remains on whether listening sixty years later will posthumously fulfill that mission. We shall see.
courtesy of TIFF