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‘MLK/FBI’ looks at J. Edgar Hoover’s crusade to undermine Martin Luther King Jr.

Government agents listened in as the saint of civil rights cheated on his wife

In 2027, the National Archives will finally release the many hours of audio the FBI surreptitiously recorded when its director, J. Edgar Hoover, sought to destroy the life and credibility of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.

A judge ordered that the tapes be released to the National Archives way back in 1977, but they won’t become publicly available for another six years. However, there is plenty of information available about the FBI’s targeted surveillance of King. In his newest documentary, MLK/FBI, available on demand Friday, director Sam Pollard (Mr. Soul!, Eyes on the Prize, Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children) unveils the goals, weaponization and consequences of Hoover’s racist obsession.

MLK/FBI is adapted from the 1981 book The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr.: From ‘Solo’ to Memphis by historian David J. Garrow. Pollard tackles, with grace and generosity, the most uncomfortable and morally thorny areas of King’s life and how they came to light. King is more than just a person, of course. He is a martyr, a saint of modern civil rights, a national exemplar of nonviolence and a Christian soldier for peace and justice. As such, it can be difficult to imagine him as a man, flawed as all men are, especially when the subject is his sexual peccadilloes.

In MLK/FBI, director Sam Pollard tackles, with grace and generosity, the most uncomfortable and morally thorny areas of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and how they came to light.

IFC Films

And yet this is the muck into which Hoover dragged King and the FBI, in the hopes that he could paint King as a licentious hypocrite and therefore strip away his power as a leader. What perhaps began as a national security mission, constructed in concert with the John F. Kennedy administration to monitor King for signs of Communist activity, devolved into something more personal and perverse. Hoover, offended by just about everything King stood for, was determined to destroy the man. He mailed recordings of King’s extramarital activities to his wife, Coretta, and had an anonymous letter drafted and sent to King’s house that suggested King kill himself.

“There have always been a couple of really important tensions within the FBI,” one commentator tells Pollard in MLK/FBI. “One is being a very rule-bound organization, a very professional organization, and organization attuned to jurisdiction and law, and then being an organization that was almost lawless.”

The image of the former gave cover for the activities of the latter. Pollard brings in multiple layers of context that, at first glance, seem unrelated. Using The Birth of a Nation and the racist backlash that eventually ends Reconstruction, MLK/FBI illustrates how “Black political aspiration” goes through a kaleidoscopic filter of bigotry to emerge as a violent sexual threat. When combined with Hoover’s own opinion of King as a sexual deviant and the FBI director’s rumored status as a closeted and self-loathing queer person, it becomes clearer how Hoover abused the tools of the state in service of his own issues.

Civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, were aware that any suggestion of illicit sex could act as nitroglycerin to their goals of pursuing equality in a country founded by Puritans. This is one of the main reasons they were reluctant to take up the issue of the interracial rape of Black women — they argued it would undermine the overall pursuit of civil rights.

MLK/FBI sparks questions about the state of the FBI today, especially in the wake of the Jan. 6 white supremacist attack on the U.S. Capitol.

IFC Films

One of the things Pollard makes clear is that the surveillance of King’s life was not merely the result of Hoover’s personal gripes. In ways implicit and explicit, they were supported by the broader U.S. government, across two administrations (Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson), that were regarded as friendlier to the cause of civil rights than their conservative counterparts. Hoover’s attitudes were very much in line with the white American mainstream, laundered through the press and through the lens of popular culture.

Take, for instance, archival footage Pollard includes of United Press International (UPI) journalist Gay Pauley interviewing King, right after he’s been introduced as “the American Gandhi.”

“The nonviolent [demonstrations] always end up with violence, or almost always, Dr. King,” said Pauley. “What excuse, or what reason do you offer for this approach of creating a crisis atmosphere in a community, which leads to bloodshed, as it has in many Southern cities and some Northern?”

The question is victim-blaming, essentially stating that the darkies are causing violence in America by having the audacity to peacefully assert their constitutionally-guaranteed rights. At its peak, UPI, a wire service founded in 1907, had more than 6,000 news organizations subscribing to its service. It was the opposite of fringe, and so the vaunted Fourth Estate, which held itself out as the protector of democracy and free speech, was complicit in blaming King and Black people more broadly, for their own oppression. This is not an environment in which Hoover’s actions would have been seen as objectionable, so long as his microphones were not being aimed at normal, white Americans.

While MLK/FBI is expansive and humane, it leaves room for a deeper and more concentrated look at Coretta Scott King as an individual who faced her own enormous challenges as a public figure. In considering her role as a friend, confidant and wife to King, I found myself wondering who she had to talk to, who she could trust with the pain and betrayal of King’s infidelity, while she played the public role of a devoted wife and first lady of the civil rights movement. When and with whom could Coretta grab a moment of respite? I beg, someone: Please make this documentary.

MLK/FBI also sparks questions about the state of the FBI today, especially in the wake of the Jan. 6 white supremacist attack on the U.S. Capitol. What is the FBI now, given the foundations on which Hoover built the agency, and how much of his ideological and operational footprint still remains? Hoover’s ideal G-man, Pollard shows, was tall, fit, white and male — “he particularly liked fraternity boys and football players,” one expert states — conservative men who were dedicated to upholding a social order that kept white people on top. How much authority can be extended to such an organization, particularly when Americans are depending on it to find and charge the many people who stormed the Capitol, fueled, in no small measure, by the desire to uphold the racist order Hoover held so dear? What an odd, dangerous and tenuous house of cards America has built.

“You know this about humans,” says former FBI director James Comey at the beginning of the film. “What we’re best at is convincing ourselves of our own righteousness … I think this episode [of surveilling King] represents the darkest part of the bureau’s history.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.