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Saturday, 06 February 2021 21:40

MLK / FBI

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Jeff Carter examines Sam Pollard’s new documentary, MLK / FBI, regarding the extensive surveillance apparatus established by the FBI and directed at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Despite avoiding some moral issues on the part of the FBI, a generous view of this film is warranted and the widest distribution to a mainstream audience should be encouraged.


Sam Pollard’s MLK / FBI is a new documentary addressing the extensive surveillance apparatus established by the FBI and directed at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in his organization during the 1960s. The film has been generally lauded by the mainstream press and therefore enjoys a higher profile in the cultural pecking order than may be enjoyed by other projects tackling controversial issues involving government wrongdoing. While mainstream endorsement might encourage skepticism, MLK / FBI generally supports positions long held by the critical community, despite a glaring tendency to hand the FBI the benefit of the doubt.

The film is based on historian David Garrow’s book The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr: From ‘Solo’ To Memphis, but it seems to have been specifically generated by the 2017–18 release into the National Archives of a series of summaries of FBI surveillance transcripts. These summaries cast an extremely negative light on King’s character with their salacious, but unverified, detail. They were first publicized in 2019—by Garrow—in controversial fashion.[1] However, although these summaries are referred to specifically at both the beginning and end of the film—as well as obliquely at times between—they are not exactly representative of the documentary’s content. That overall subject matter is primarily concerned with the process by which the FBI would seriously violate King’s constitutional rights and, by extension, let a federal investigative agency intervene directly in domestic politics.

It’s important at this point to bring in more textural background on the issue than the film does. As the Bureau’s Director of Domestic Intelligence, William Sullivan, told the Church Committee, Hoover had secretly wiretapped King for years. (Harris Wofford, Of Kennedys and Kings, pp. 214–15) He had done this because he had suspected two close associates of King were communists: Stanley Levison and Jack O’Dell. His goal was to show that, somehow, King and the civil rights movement were Moscow inspired; his other surveillance goal was to show that King was embezzling large amounts of money. Either way, King would be discredited.

Despite the egregious nature of the FBI’s wiretapping of King, ostensibly begun in 1962, MLK / FBI delves into this history with a notable tendency to emphasize the FBI’s viewpoint, described at times as “seeing events through (the agency’s) eyes.” This leads to, for instance, something like an acceptance that the FBI had sound reason to determine that King’s advisor Stanley Levison was in fact a communist agent, even as one of the narrators (Garrow) lays out the weakness of such determination. This, in turn, serves to buttress the FBI’s later developing position that the wiretaps were justified because King had somehow “misled” President Kennedy when he supposedly agreed to sever his ties to Levison. A more astute review of the FBI’s position might see the King/Levison controversy as entirely a pretext, particularly as the ties between the two had lasted years without generating attention and that King’s presumed “dishonesty” to Kennedy was tied to an assessment of Levison which King knew to be incorrect.

This narrative strategy—allowing the FBI the benefit of the doubt (or even allowing the doubt in the first place)—leads the film to describe the unearthing of King’s extra-marital relationships, through wiretaps on his colleague Clarence Jones, as “accidental”. Again, a more realistic analysis might see—as noted above—that the FBI’s program was always specifically intended to “dig up dirt” on King, so as to compromise his leadership position should it become necessary. It is generally conceded that Hoover endorsed such practices and had amassed a fairly extensive collection of kompromat on dissidents and mainstream politicians alike. Although the film takes care to correctly portray the status quo of mid-century America as decidedly Caucasian and male, the film’s narrative strategies, at least through its first half, serves to avoid grappling in detail with the extensive active role of federal agencies in enforcing this status quo. This serves to reinforce a longstanding ideological consensus that deviations from constitutional norms are always best understood as “unfortunate mistakes.”[2]

Similarly, there are associative edits which serve to subtly undermine the good character of both RFK and King, a technique not similarly applied to FBI officials. In the first instance, the film’s coverage of Robert Kennedy’s decision, in his position as Attorney General, to support the FBI’s request to wiretap King is immediately followed by newsreel footage of RFK eloquently espousing his support for Black America’s aspirations. Later, after the reality of King’s extra-marital relationships are discussed, the films cuts immediately to an MLK appearance on a Merv Griffin television program where he describes himself as a “Baptist preacher” not interested in New York City’s “fun side.” While this may be considered an effective shorthand means to reflect the complexities of both men, the associations are manufactured by the editor, as there is no direct linking context of the newsreel/Griffin clips to the discussion they follow.

And again, there is an important context that is missing. By 1963, Bobby Kennedy was pressing Hoover to have the FBI take a stronger role in civil rights cases, especially against the Ku Klux Klan. (Wofford, p. 215) As Sullivan noted, as this pressure increased, Hoover incessantly badgered Kennedy to wiretap King. The implicit threat being that he would go to the press with his rumors of communist influence. As most commentators have concluded, since Hoover was already tapping and surveilling King, this was done simply as a pretext to get RFK on board. Hoover now had the potential to smear them both. (Wofford, p. 215) Finally, Bobby Kennedy gave in and the wiretapping was approved on October 21, 1963. (Ibid, p. 217) Kennedy applied a 30-day contingency to the plan. It would be reviewed at that time to see if anything substantive had been captured. We all know what happened a month later in Dallas. As many commentators have noted, with his brother gone, Bobby Kennedy lost control over the FBI. And when Hoover’s friend Lyndon Johnson came into office, the FBI campaign against King was greatly expanded. (Gerald McKnight, The Last Crusade, p. 2)

That said, and just as this reviewer was fearing the worst for this film, at about the halfway mark MLK / FBI moves on from its at-times muddled narrative strategies to find a clearer tone. A strong sequence associating notions of “Black deviancy” with long-standing racialist white conservative obsessions is followed by a deservedly harsh condemnation of the FBI’s so-called “suicide letter” (and related recording) which had been sent to King’s home. This was an alleged “sex tape” of King accompanied by a warning that unless he either resigned or ended his life, the tape would be given to the press.

This is followed by another strong sequence covering King’s political activities in 1967–68. Then, reversing the sequential linear exposition, the recently released summaries (dating from 1964), presumedly featuring MLK’s participation in coercive sexual acts, are reviewed. In this instance, Garrow’s certainty of the credibility of the transcript contents are effectively undermined by the other narrators.

In a concluding coda, anticipating the 2027 release of the controversial transcripts, much is made of personal “complexity” (while the FBI agent among the several narrators argues that the transcripts should not see the light of day at all). However, despite contradictory narrative threads and effective cancellations of firm constitutional principle—expressed with far more vigor and certainty when the FBI programs against King were revealed during the 1970s—this film does, in fact, open up a lot of space for receptive viewers to consider these events in ways outside of the revisionist establishment narrative the film toys with in its first half. Not many mainstream films have time for William Pepper’s 1967 Ramparts article “Children of Vietnam”, let alone allowing Andrew Young—who reflects a strong gravitas with his remarks throughout the film—opine “I don’t think James Earl Ray had anything to do with Dr King’s assassination.”

If anything, what the film is missing is a wider exploration of morality. While King’s “moral leadership” of the civil rights movement is frequently referred to and eventually contextualized through the lens of sexual infidelity (and found “complex”), morality is more accurately a broader conception of good/bad right/wrong against which the FBI’s unconstitutional programs in defense of an ossified status quo could be properly considered. For instance, the FBI did give the “sex tapes” to a reporter working for The Washington Post. Editor Ben Bradlee told Justice Department official Burke Marshall and Marshall complained to Johnson about it. Now, LBJ told Hoover that Bradlee could not be trusted and the Director then spread smears about Marshall being a liar. (Wofford, p. 220) As it stands, the film concludes that the FBI is also “complex,” as is the support for it by “mainstream society.”

That last observation is rather interesting and may help situate the position of the filmmakers. Assuming the intended audience is a largely (liberal) mainstream one—and given the general applause for the film by mainstream media—an adversarial position directed at the FBI from the film’s start might not be a wise strategy at the vantage of post-Trump America. The successful contemporary positioning of the FBI, and other agencies, as noble “whistle-blowers” who assisted the effort to blunt Trump’s presidency has led to a crest in the agency’s popular reputation (deserved or not). Further, the appellation of the dread term “conspiracy theory” has also risen to an effective peak in its ability to discredit or dismiss alternative or uncomfortable viewpoints.[3]

To what extent the filmmakers consciously decided to tap dance their way around this problem—by, for example, going out of their way to express the FBI’s presumed point-of-view in the film’s first half—this reviewer is not aware. But the issue cannot be ignored by those who strive to tackle controversial topics while maintaining a popular forum. Sometimes a prudent framing of the issues at hand allows the expression of viewpoints outside establishment consensus, without the gatekeepers even noticing. On the whole, a generous view of this film is warranted and the widest distribution to a mainstream audience should be encouraged in anticipation that to the receptive viewership will seek out more information.


[1] This was discussed by the reviewer in a 2019 article for Kennedys and King: “Garrow’s Interpretive Guesswork Presumes The Worst”.

[2] This point of view—i.e. “mistakes”—depends on the omission of uncomfortable facts, many of which appear only years after events in question. Recently released documents, for example, suggest Hoover’s FBI to have been a far more direct participant in the state-directed assassination of Chicago Black Panther Fred Hampton than has to date been understood. New Documents Suggest J. Edgar Hoover Was Involved in Fred Hampton’s Murder.

[3] The contemporary FBI, in context of potential “domestic terrorism”, warns of beliefs which “attempt to explain events or circumstances as the result of a group of actors working in secret to benefit themselves at the expense of others” and which are “usually at odds with official or prevailing explanations of events.” Note that the FBI, in this context, avows that it cannot “initiate an investigation based solely on First Amendment based activity”—as history shows, not least with Dr. King but also seen more recently with FISA abuses, pretexts can and will be manufactured in the interest of interrupting precisely activity subject to constitutional protections. The degree to which this has always been the case is one of the least acknowledged factors in American political history. “FBI Document Warns Conspiracy Theories Are A New Domestic Terrorism Threat”.

Last modified on Saturday, 06 February 2021 22:49
Jeff Carter

Jeff Carter is a filmmaker and audio technician based in Vancouver, Canada. Along with Len Osanic, he produced the web series 50 Reasons for 50 Years in 2013.

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