Martin Luther King, the charismatic champion of the American civil rights movement, became famous after his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech seen by the FBI as a danger to America. His ins and outs had been followed for some time, but from then on, the J. Edgar Hoover-led intelligence agency freed up more manpower to shadow King, tap his phone, and infiltrate his organization. Hoover was so afraid of a “black Messiah” that he referred to King in a memo as “the most dangerous black in America.” Hoover went to great lengths to discredit King. He even went as far as shooting in the hotel rooms where King was committing adultery; tapes that would one day come in handy as blackmail.
The documentary, built entirely from archive material Martin Luther King vs. the FBI tells this story of King’s relationship with the FBI from King’s rise in the 1950s to the deadly attack on him in 1968. On the tape, those directly involved and historians comment. Among them is David Garrow, on whose book The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr. the documentary is based. But director Sam Pollard does more than slavishly retell this book. Fragments from Hollywood movies about the FBI punctuate his argument. They aptly illustrate how Hollywood contributed greatly to the image of the FBI as a heroic organization, with the FBI agents as heroes who manage to save the homeland threatened by all kinds of forces.
One of those alleged dangers was communism. Hoover and the FBI thought black people were easily influenced by communists. They also had stereotypical ideas about the black man and his dangerous sexuality – virulent ideas that were also reinforced by many a feature film.
Pollard’s film is essentially about racism, with Martin Luther King vs. the FBI the observation that freedom of expression was also at stake. Particularly when King, much to the chagrin of both Hoover and President Johnson, turned against the Vietnam War, the FBI continued to undermine his authority and silence him. A sex tape was delivered to King’s wife Coretta, containing an FBI-drafted letter from a supposedly concerned fellow activist urging King more or less to commit suicide before his reputation was tarnished. He was murdered a few months later. Both facts are shocking.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of October 6, 2021