Photo: ‘MLK/FBI’/IFC Films
‘MLK/FBI’ – King vs. Hoover
Those with any lingering doubts about the deep systemic racism in the US Justice System would do well to watch ‘MLK/FBI’, the new documentary from Sam Pollard. The film examines the tireless campaign the FBI waged against Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., beginning in the 1960s and leading up to his assassination by a sniper’s bullet in 1968.
Purportedly beginning due to paranoia that King would shepherd African Americans to embrace communism, the Bureau developed an intricate counterintelligence network against him, tapping his phones, smearing him in the media, and infiltrating his ranks with spies and informants (see the upcoming film ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’, starring Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, and Jesse Plemons). Most damningly, the FBI sent an audio recording of King allegedly engaging in an act of sexual infidelity to both King and his wife, coupling it with a letter suggesting that King commit suicide.
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The strategy to destroy King was largely a brainchild of J. Edgar Hoover, the Director of the FBI from 1924 until his death in 1972. Hoover was born and raised in a segregated Washington, D.C., and he carried outmoded belief systems with him throughout his life. It’s impossible to define just how much Hoover’s too-long tenure as FBI Director held back Civil Rights, but what is clear is that the FBI’s campaign against Black activism in the US was far more aggressive than their campaigns against organized crime and communism, the two forces they were ostensibly most committed to defeating.
‘MLK/FBI’ dispels the notion that Hoover was a rogue actor, operating far outside the desires of the average American in his crusade against ‘subversives’. At one point, the documentary reveals footage from a public opinion poll. One woman chides King as being “Too bossy–thinks he’s too smart,” while a man says of King, “If he is a human he’s about the worst in the world.” One opinion poll taken at the time found that 50% of those asked had a favorable opinion of Hoover, while only 15-20% sided with King.
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Propaganda and Pressure
The propaganda arm of the FBI was incredibly strong. Films like the James Cagney-starring ‘G Men’, the Frank Lovejoy-starring ‘I Was a Communist for the FBI’, and the Jimmy Stewart-starring ‘The FBI Story’ portrayed FBI agents as paragons of virtue, the only thing preventing the United States from becoming a cesspool of criminal decrepitude. America’s favorite square-jawed (caucasian, heterosexual) movie stars were cast as FBI agents, increasing the average citizen’s fondness for the Bureau. Both the agency and the media portraying it worked to maintain the idea that America was functional because it was a patriarchal pyramid with White men at the top. By the time King’s Civil Rights career was taking off, young boys raised on the FBI mythos were ready for recruitment and indoctrination, and Hoover was three decades into his career.
Perhaps the documentary’s most shocking revelation is the degree to which Civil Rights allies in the American government became complicit in the persecution of King. As John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy was initially convinced by J. Edgar Hoover that King’s close association with suspected communist Stanley Levison justified a surveillance campaign against him. Years later, Lyndon Johnson’s administration pressured King to keep silent regarding the atrocities America was committing against Vietnamese civilians in the Vietnam War.
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LBJ and King worked together to bring the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law, ending discriminatory practices southern states had been using since the Civil War to keep Black citizens from voting. However, when King was finally compelled by his conscience to break his silence regarding the Vietnam War, the aura of protection surrounding him vanished. In the Riverside Church speech, King made clear that his philosophy of Christian nonviolence was more than just a tactic to promote his agenda in America; it was his entire ethos. He delivered the speech on April 4, 1967. Exactly one year later, on April 4, 1968, he would be killed.
Sexual Anxiety in the Bureau
‘MLK/FBI’ demonstrates how the FBI’s hostility towards Black America was pathologically driven by a desire to believe in its own hype. The Bureau became obsessed with King’s extramarital promiscuity, electing it as its main strategy with which to destroy him. Hoover was pathologically preoccupied with it. In memos, he and his agents used horrifically disparaging language to describe King. It was no coincidence that when Hoover decided to refer to King as the “most notorious liar in the country,” he did it to a group of female reporters. Hoover saw it as his duty to maintain America’s preexisting racial, moral, and gender hierarchies.
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The documentary only briefly alludes to the theory that Hoover was so obsessive due to insecurity about his own status as a closeted gay man (that theory is more closely examined in Clint Eastwood’s ‘J. Edgar’, with Leonardo DiCaprio playing Hoover and Armie Hammer playing his protégé and possible romantic partner Clyde Tolson). Whether Hoover harbored anxiety about his own sexuality will likely always be a source of historical speculation, but he certainly had a narrow idea of what kind of sexual behavior was acceptable. One of the most infamous examples of the FBI’s prejudice was the COINTELPRO operation against actress Jean Seberg. After Seberg began a romance with the Black activist Hakim Jamal, the FBI responded by spying on her and smearing her in the media, eventually ruining her career and leading to her suicide. This story is dramatized in the film ‘Seberg’, starring Kristen Stewart and Anthony Mackie.
The FBI’s Complicity in Violence
Again, the FBI was not operating outside of the existing American values system with these campaigns. As seen in Jeff Nichols’ 2016 film ‘Loving’, it was not until 1967 that the U.S. Supreme Court decided to invalidate state laws that prohibited interracial marriage. Demonizing King’s sexuality was the perfect way to attack him, a way to keep his ideas from catching on with the greater American public. The knowledge that the FBI had sexually sensitive intel on him haunted King for the rest of his life. When Coretta Scott King remained loyal to her husband and King refused the Bureau’s advice that he kill himself, the Bureau became increasingly frustrated.
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They continued to stalk him, up until his assassination at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. In fascinating and disturbing interviews, historians and King’s close associates speculate whether the FBI knew about James Earl Ray’s plans to kill King, or whether Ray had anything to do with the assassination. It’s certainly true that the FBI did nothing to protect King, choosing instead to stoke racial division that only made him more vulnerable.
The FBI’s policy of status quo White supremacy fertilized the soil that sustained groups like the Ku Klux Klan and fed tactics of police brutality that have unfortunately survived into the 21st century. The film also asks the difficult question of how pure we want our heroes to be, and whether we are somehow complicit in the FBI’s surreptitious surveillance program if we listen in on their recordings. However, seeing just how adversarial the FBI was against King does also serve to lionize King even further as a man of exceptional conviction and moral courage. Not only that, the film is yet another excellent testament to just how intelligent King was.
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The Rise of a ‘Black Messiah’
When asked why Black Americans had ‘failed’ to establish themselves in America to the degree which European immigrant groups had, he spoke about the ‘thingification’ of Black people, explaining that society’s structural dehumanization of African Americans resulted in a ‘poverty of the spirit’. He said, “I believe we ought to do all we can and seek to lift ourselves by our own bootstraps, but it’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by own bootstraps.” When asked whether he thought Blacks were too sympathetic towards communism, he remarked that it was “amazing how loyal the Negro has been despite their long night of oppression.” When asked whether he thought Civil Rights leaders were asking so much so suddenly, risking inciting anger amongst Whites, he responded, “The only way people can grapple with their prejudices is to admit that they have them,” explaining that anger was a natural and crucial initial reaction to the issue of inequality being brought to the surface.
King was a radical thinker, far more Christlike than many of the supposedly Christian hypocrites who chose to side with Hoover over him. The extreme irony of Hoover’s fear of King is that by attempting to prevent his rise as a ‘Black Messiah’, he only managed to create a self-fulfilling prophecy and turn himself into a Pontius Pilate. When King won the Nobel Prize, Hoover was filled with jealousy. Seriously, what kind of person acknowledges a man to have messianic qualities and then deliberately decides to play the part of the Romans? Fortunately, King was sanguine and serene about what was at stake. Along with spiritual advisors like Bayard Rustin, King reacted to the 1960’s Space Age with the beautifully counterintuitive decision to put his faith in the ambiguous spiritual power of God and the good works of human beings.
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He knew it was crazy to face the dangers he was facing, and yet he did it anyway because it was the right thing to do. The documentary extensively quotes King confidants like Clarence Jones and Andrew Young, the latter of whom reminisced how King called death the “ultimate democracy.” According to King, “You don’t have anything to say about when you die or how you die or where you die. You can only choose what it is you give your life for.” Another favorite maxim of King’s, and one that went on to be popularized by President Obama, states, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The rise of modern heroes like Stacey Abrams, Raphael Warnock, Kamala Harris, and Amanda Gorman suggests that the universe is bending, but it doesn’t bend all by itself.
‘MLK/FBI’ is currently playing at select theaters. It is also available to stream on YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, and Amazon Prime.
Cinematography: Robert Chappell | Editor: Laura Tomaselli
Director: Sam Pollard | Writers: Benjamin Hedin, Laura Tomaselli
Producer: Benjamin Hedin | Music By: Gerald Clayton
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