In time for Martin Luther King Jr. Day comes the compelling documentary “MLK/FBI,” screening at the M.V. Film Center. With support from the book “The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr.: From ‘Solo’ to Memphis,” by David Garrow, Emmy-awardwinning Sam Pollard directs. He takes a close look at the way the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover conducted surveillance on King and harassed him.
Using archival footage, clips from film and TV, still photography, documents, and interviews, along with other newly declassified materials, Pollard illustrates with chilling insights the FBI’s behavior. What begins as the FBI’s surveillance, basically motivated by Hoover’s racism, turns into an examination of King’s private life, in particular his many extramarital affairs. At the massive March on Washington in 1963, King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech. He stated that Negroes were making peaceful protests with the goal of overcoming hatred toward Blacks. In 1955, the film describes how King led 40,000 Blacks in a Montgomery bus boycott, and King made the statement that violence is self-defeating. According to the film, the Supreme Court announced, in support of King, that bus segregation is not legal.
After King met lawyer and activist Stanley Levison and made him a close advisor, the FBI suspected Levison’s, and therefore King’s, involvement with communism. The House Committee on Un-American Activities subpoenaed Levison, and the FBI learned that Levison did have communist connections.
Many believed Hoover was a hero, helping make the U.S. the pinnacle of power. The film observes that Hoover saw himself as the guardian of American life. With the communist connection in mind, Hoover went to Robert F. Kennedy, then U.S. Attorney General, for permission to secretly wiretap King. This was done despite the fact that both Kennedy and his brother, President John F. Kennedy, supported the civil rights movement, and it happened because of King’s suspected communist association. Despite being advised to keep his distance from Levison, King remained in contact with him. Instead of focusing on King’s connections to communism, in late 1963 Hoover directed the FBI to examine King’s private life, in hopes of exploiting his extramarital activities.
In 1964, after the Civil Rights Act was passed and King received the Nobel Peace Prize, Hoover ignored King’s celebration as an international leader, and continued to harass him. The press reported that Hoover called King a notorious liar, and a public opinion poll taken at the time found that 50 percent of the public supported Hoover. He claimed King was morally unfit to be a Negro leader.
William Sullivan, director of FBI intelligence operations at the time, penned an anonymous letter denouncing King as a beast and hypocrite, and advised him to kill himself. The letter was sent to King’s wife Coretta. The film called it the darkest part of the FBI’s history. In 1965, King led a march of 2,000 from Selma to Montgomery, and the Voting Rights Act was passed as well.
Once King criticized the Vietnam War, however, he lost President Lyndon B. Johnson’s support, and King claimed the government was more interested in winning the war than in civil rights. King was assassinated, and the film posits that the FBI could be responsible.
“MLK/FBI” continues to examine the FBI’s treatment of King, interviewing historians Beverly Gage and Donna Murch and author Garrow, as well as many other experts, to reinforce its view of the relationship between King and the FBI. The film has won many awards, including the Critic’s Choice Documentary Award. For viewers interested in the history of King and the civil rights movement, as well as the FBI, it is not to be missed.
Information and tickets for “MLK/FBI” are available at mvfilmsociety.com.