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‘MLK/FBI’ Review: Sam Pollard details the FBI’s sordid surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr.


It has long been known that the 1960s US civil rights campaign led by Martin Luther King was closely followed and mistrusted by American authorities, but the level of surveillance and the lengths institutions like the FBI went to in order to slow the campaign are shocking and not as widely known. This documentary, premiering at the Toronto Film Festival and due for US release next January, fills in the gaps. Directed by Sam Pollard, who worked with Spike Lee as a film editor, is based on David Garrow’s 1983 exposé The FBI And Martin Luther King, Jr and also on recently declassified documents that show the FBI not only conducted surveillance on King, but went to extreme measures to weaken his influence. They went to such lengths, in fact, that the film begins by identifying the dilemma presented to historians and journalists: if they reveal the information found by the FBI, are they complicit in an arguably unlawful and immoral investigation? 

Beginning with coverage of the early American Civil Rights Movement, and the 1963 March on Washington that made it a national effort, the film uses extensive historic footage to outline the protests against official segregation and restrictions on voting for Black Americans. It parallels this data with reports on the government’s reaction to the movement, and in particular the reaction of the FBI. The agency was then led by Herbert Hoover, who ran the FBI from 1924 to 1972. Hoover was concerned about King’s influence from the beginning; he once called King “the most dangerous Negro in America” and expressed the view that he must be stopped. 

When lawyer Stanley Levison became an advisor to King, an excuse was found for surveillance: Levison had once been involved with the US Communist Party. Under Hoover, the agency gave almost equal attention to crime and to communism as threats to the nation. There was already much FBI focus on the Black community, because of Hoover’s firmly held opinion that they were highly susceptible to communist indoctrination. It was one of many unfounded, rather paranoid beliefs Hoover was prone to; King himself once remarked, “It’s amazing how few negroes have turned to communism,” in view of civil rights abuses under the existing system. It was due to these concerns that formal surveillance of King himself began. 

The film goes fairly deep into the politics of the time. Then-president Kennedy was sympathetic to the civil rights movement but was unwilling to upset the agencies which opposed it. The meeting of King with President Kennedy is covered, as is Kennedy’s early warning to King about possible problems with the FBI, especially if he set off Hoover’s particular fears. The more complex approach of the next president, Lyndon Johnson, also reveals a great deal about the compromises made between civil rights leaders, the anti-Vietnam War movement and the Johnson administration. 

Historic footage includes actual interviews with Hoover, in which claims about the limited use of wiretapping and surveillance are at odds with information that later became available; the film clarifies, based on documents and surveillance data which were later released, what was actually taking place. 

As King and the movement becomes better known and more successful, the Civil Rights Act is passed, and King receives the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964—an honour that reportedly angered Hoover—we see Hoover becoming increasingly obsessed and surveillance of King is not only increased, but becomes focused on his private life. Expanded surveillance of his home attempts to gain more personal data. We are able to follow Hoover’s campaign through public statements, and a meeting with King himself. 

One thing this film manages to get across is the great difference in American public attitude toward civil rights. King is generally seen as the leader of a peaceful movement, a reasonable and moderate advocate of racial equality. In the mid-1960s, he had no more than 50% support among Americans; he was regarded as a dangerous extremist and troublemaker by many. 

The film develops into something of a psychological drama or mystery as Hoover becomes increasingly obsessed by King’s private life and puts greater and greater resources toward following him. Resenting the idea that King was seen as a great moral leader, he not only intensely monitors King’s private life, records his phone calls, and places microphones in his home, Hoover takes further action as time passes, including mailing video of alleged adulterous meetings to King’s wife and having an agent send King a letter advising him to commit suicide. It becomes a bizarre crusade, described by later FBI director James Comey as “the darkest part of the agent’s history”. Statements from former FBI agents who worked on the King surveillance round off the coverage. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon Johnson (Credit: Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum)

FBI data becomes less reliable as Hoover grows more erratic on the subject of Martin Luther King and the film carefully avoids drawing unwarranted conclusions. The FBI is seen inserting itself more aggressively into civil rights activities, coming to use paid informants and insert spies into citizens’ groups due to Hoover’s growing conviction that the Black civil rights efforts would be dangerous to US stability. King’s extramarital affairs, which set off the additional surveillance, are generally considered real but additional conclusions that he engaged in everything from public orgies to rape are in dispute. Actual audio tapes from King’s hotel rooms are played, demonstrating that a great deal may have been falsely read into what is happening by the FBI agents documenting it. Professor of American Studies and Martin Luther King biographer Peter Ling once advised caution in an interview on the subject; while agreeing that there is evidence of sexual improprieties, he added, “I am extremely wary of trusting the FBI to give me accurate information on a man whom Hoover wanted to destroy.” 

Finally, the film covers King’s assassination, providing the official account of his shooting death by James Earl Ray, as well as the suspicions over this version and over the arrest of Ray, due to beliefs the FBI might have chosen him to cover up the identity of the real killer. In view of the FBI obsession with King, the theory does not come across as irrational. FBI tapes turned over to the US National Archives, it is mentioned, may shed more light; they can be released no earlier than 2027. 

A significant flaw in the film is its presentation. Taken up with the vast quantity of information available, the details of Herbert Hoover’s relentless campaign, and the possible falsification of evidence, it simply lays out an exhaustive array of data and of visual documentation. The information overload and lack of cinematic technique make it more tedious than the sensational material would normally allow for. Nevertheless, the story itself carries the film, the attention to original documents is impressive, and anyone interested in the politics of the era will find it engrossing and informative. 

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