“MLK/FBI” is a brand new documentary, recently released and perfectly timed to the annual holiday for one of history’s most important civil rights icons. It details the spine-chilling, government-sanctioned harassment of Martin Luther King Jr.
There are many interesting questions raised in this film directed by Sam Pollard, though one of the largest questions is what journalists and historians 0we to the legacy of King in terms of putting out material with the intent of sullying his name.
“The darkest part of the bureau’s history” is what James Comey, former FBI director, uses to describe J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with MLK and his unnerving campaigns that were set out to destroy him.
FBI surveillance at the time had hoped to uncover communist influences buried in the civil-rights movement. However, they ended up uncovering something more obscene — the fact that he had been unfaithful to his wife, Coretta Scott King. The bureau hoped to use this fact against him.
A document released in 2017 showed that the FBI threatened him with exposure of the fact, urging him to commit suicide. The ultimate goal of Hoover was to hurt the larger movement by destroying the “figurehead,” which was quite obviously King. After King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Hoover felt this mission required greater urgency.
Director Sam Pollard explores the complex relationship between former President Lyndon Johnson and King, both of whom were civil rights advocates prior to King standing up against the Vietnam War.
Andrew Young, former Atlanta mayor and King aide recalled that the leadership of the movement assumed the “rooms were bugged,” though they were unsure as to what extent they were being spied on.
According to historian David Garrow, Hoover had a vendetta out for King, much of which stemmed from the fact that he believed King was “morally unfit.” His actions portray a troubling point in time win which wiretapping and government overreach were all too common.
One interesting exercise that lies within the film is that much of the intelligence that was gathered during that period is set to be released to the public in 2027. This raises issues as to how we can possibly handle historically significant material, including material that may give us a more detailed picture of FBI transgressions while exploiting the memory of King.
The film has plenty of fascinating footage of King in a number of different settings, including the time when he received his Nobel award and times when he made appearances on national talk shows. All of these clips are juxtaposed with the other half of the story, including Hoover and the culture of the FBI. The movie uniquely touches on Hoover’s biography as well.
“MLK/FBI provides viewers with a compelling portrayal of the civil rights movement, shedding light on one of the darkest times in our country’s history. All the while, the documentary asks readers to consider just how much of the information still left in the shadows should remain there, as it could spoil the memory of an iconic leader.