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By Any Means Necessary: The FBI vs. Civil Rights

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and its director for nearly half a century, J. Edgar Hoover, had a carefully groomed image, cultivated by fawning pop culture and news reporting. The agency and its employees were seen as crime fighters busting the mob and Cold Warriors investigating “commies.” But MLK/FBI, a new documentary by director Sam Pollard, exposes the sinister role that Hoover and his G-Men played as foot soldiers in another holy war: opposing the struggle for Black equality.

“We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation.”

MLK/FBI is based on David J. Garrow’s 1981 book, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From ‘Solo’ to Memphis, as well as documents recently declassified under the Freedom of Information Act.

Pollard’s 104-minute film chronicles Martin Luther King Jr.’s rise on the national scene, threatening to become what Hoover feared would be a “Black Messiah”—a charismatic leader who’d galvanize Black Americans in their liberation struggle—and the Bureau’s nefarious scheme to undermine him.

Following the August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King delivered his renowned “I Have a Dream” speech, William C. Sullivan, the FBI’s domestic intelligence head, wrote a memo asserting, “We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation.”

MLK/FBI painstakingly reveals the surveillance by the Bureau’s “Big Brothers” via wiretapping the home and office phones of King and other civil rights organizers, bugs surreptitiously placed in King’s hotel rooms, and the use of paid informants, including a Southern Christian Leadership Conference staffer and longtime movement photographer.

According to the documentary, this carefully coordinated clandestine campaign of snooping aimed to cull damaging insider information that could be used to discredit—and even destroy—King and his cause. The first source of alarm, as far as U.S. secret police go, is King’s ongoing relationship with attorney Stanley Levison, a trusted adviser whom author David Garrow, one of the film’s interviewees, calls “an unsung hero” of the civil rights movement.

The FBI uncovers evidence that Levison has communist ties, about which Hoover informs President John F. Kennedy. During a subsequent White House visit, Kennedy privately urges King to break  ties with Levison; King agrees to cease communicating with him. But FBI eavesdropping discovers that King continues to stay in touch with the suspected communist, which enrages Hoover.

The relationship between the Black liberation struggle and communism is a leitmotif of MLK/FBI. In one clip, King is seen on a national TV news program responding to a question from Dan Rather, saying “It is amazing so few Negroes have turned to communism in light of their oppression” in the segregated United States.     

In addition to numerous sexual liaisons allegedly recorded by the G-Men’s spying, King was also purportedly an accessory to a coerced sexual act he observed but didn’t attempt to stop. Having been unsuccessful in toppling King with redbaiting, Hoover—who dubbed King “the most notorious liar in the country”—plots to cause the married clergyman’s downfall by exposing sordid details of his personal life.

Despite these machinations against him, King persisted in fighting the good fight. This confounded Hoover, who was unable to find any mass media outlets willing to release the dirt the Bureau claimed to have dug up.  

MLK/FBI consists of black-and-white and color archival material and news clips from historic moments of the epoch, ranging from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to Bull Connor’s police dogs and firehoses in Birmingham to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and beyond.

These scenes are intercut with Hollywood agitprop ballyhooing FBI prowess, such as 1951’s I Was a Communist for the FBI, and celluloid stereotypes of Blacks. This imagery is often accompanied by original commentary and interviews by subjects speaking offscreen and heard in voiceover. They include King associates Andrew Young and former FBI Director James Comey.  Watching these historical frames unspool before one’s eyes is edifying, especially in light of today’s racial reckoning.

Pollard is a gifted filmmaker whose extensive credits include directing episodes of the 1990’s Oscar-nominated series Eyes on the Prize and 2017’s Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me. In MLK/FBI, Pollard has created a case study of COINTELPRO—the U.S. government surveillance of dissenters. A shrewd political observer, Pollard doesn’t let Presidents Kennedy and Johnson off the hook for the roles they played in the surveillance of  King.

Although presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy is remembered for his compassionate, extemporaneous speech in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968 following King’s murder, MLK/FBI notes Kennedy’s part, as U.S. Attorney General, in authorizing Hoover’s eavesdropping. As Garrow puts it, “The FBI was not a renegade agency. It was fundamentally a part of the existing mainstream political order.”

Significantly, at the documentary’s end, King confidant Clarence Jones wisely sums up what may be MLK/FBI’s main conclusion: That King’s purported trespasses in private life don’t diminish what he achieved in public as a world historical leader who changed the United States.   

MLK/FBI ​opens in select theaters such as the Cinelounge in Hollywood and on demand January 15 (the ninety-second anniversary of King’s birth).

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