'MLK/FBI' director talks 'cancel culture' and the Civil Rights leader's legacy via unreleased FBI recordings

Ethan Alter
·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
·9-min read

Since his assassination in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been enshrined in American history as a Civil Rights hero and a prophet of a better tomorrow. But a more complex portrait of the preacher and activist is on display in the new documentary MLK/FBI, which arrives in theaters and on demand on Jan. 15 after premiering at both the Toronto and New York film festivals last fall. Directed by Sam Pollard, the movie chronicles the FBI’s multi-year surveillance of King on the orders of the agency’s founder and director, J. Edgar Hoover. Using on-the-ground agents and informants, as well as bugs and wiretaps, the FBI recorded — and eventually weaponized — a side of King’s life that he kept carefully hidden from his followers: his adulterous affairs with many different women.

While the audio tapes containing those intimate encounters won’t be released to the public until 2027, details of their contents have already emerged in previously published government documents. One particularly incendiary report alleged that King witnessed a rape committed by another pastor, and didn’t intervene to stop it. The contrast between his image and the man reportedly heard on the FBI tapes has led some conservative commentators to preemptively speculate whether the so-called “cancel culture” they frequently criticize will feel compelled to do the unthinkable and cancel King.

The FBI's harassment of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is the subject of the new documentary, 'MLK/FBI' (Photo: Courtesy IFC Films)
The FBI's harassment of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is the subject of the new documentary MLK/FBI. (Photo: Courtesy IFC Films)

“I don’t think so, man,” Pollard tells Yahoo Entertainment about the possibility of that cancellation coming to pass. “We live in a time of social media where people are constantly trying to denigrate people and who they were and what they were all about. The term ‘cancel culture’ is hot and heavy. We've seen it happen with the notion of taking down the names and the statues of Confederate generals, and there will probably be some backlash against certain Black leaders. It's to be expected in this country. But I think King will probably escape that — that's my take.”

At the same time, Pollard acknowledges that the release of the tapes will bring renewed scrutiny to King’s legacy, both from those who, as he says, “never had any respect for King and the movement” as well as adults who came of age in households where he was revered. “Growing up in African American communities, I’ve always said there were three images we had on our wall: Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ,” the director remarks. “I look at it this way: When I was 14, I was told that Abraham Lincoln was a great American president because he was a great emancipator. I’ve learned since then that he wasn’t so hopped up on freeing the slaves. He needed bodies to fight the Civil War. Did that diminish Abraham Lincoln in my eyes? Not really, and I don’t think that’ll happen to King.”

In fact, Pollard indicates that he was made aware of King’s extramarital affairs long before he started work on MLK/FBI, and has since processed that information into his broader understanding of his life story. “I’ve known for years that he had illicit affairs. Now, what I might hear on those tapes might make me go, ‘Woah,’ but it’s not going to change my take on Dr. King. The thing to remember is that this was the 1960s, and there was a different idea about the relationship between men and women. I'm not trying to excuse it, but it was different. You can try to hold Dr. King's feet to the fire and say, ‘He shouldn't have done that’ And yeah, you're absolutely right, but the relationship that men and women had was very different back then. What you may also hear on those tapes are the [protest] strategies King was going to put into place in cities like Birmingham or Selma when he was in the room with people like Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young. You’ll hear those kinds of discussions, too.”

Sam Pollard, the director of the new documentary, 'MLK/FBI' (Photo: Courtesy IFC Films)
Sam Pollard, the director of the new documentary MLK/FBI. (Photo: Courtesy IFC Films)

As MLK/FBI suggests, the existence of the tapes is more controversial than what may be on them. At first acting on his own authority, and later with the tacit endorsement of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, Hoover maintained constant surveillance of King’s activities and used that material in various blackmail attempts to force him into silence. Copies and transcripts of the tapes were even mailed to King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, in the hopes of rupturing their marriage. While those plans ultimately proved unsuccessful, it didn’t curtail Hoover’s deep-seated desire to damage King’s public image.

“Hoover grew up as a white man in America with a certain set of values that were instilled in him, and Black people were not even something to be thinking about,” Pollard says of Hoover’s motivations to target King. “All of a sudden a Black man and a Black community says, ‘We want to be a part of the fabric of America, and not just sit on the fringes.’ That scared the s*** out of people and it still does, to be frank. Hoover and the FBI were frightened to the point where they wire-tapped him and used that information to try to discredit and destroy him. That’s the lengths they would go to.” Hoover died in 1972 — four years after King’s assassination — never apologizing for pursuing his personal vendetta against King, and the agency’s subsequent leaders have declined to apologize to the family as well.

Former FBI director James Comey is among the interview subjects Pollard spoke to for MLK/FBI and his description of Hoover’s surveillance of King as the agency’s “darkest period” is the closest thing the filmmaker expects to hear to an official apology. “They should, but they won’t,” he says matter-of-factly. “And the lengths that the FBI went to discredit Dr. King — don’t believe that they don’t do that today with certain organizations. Don’t believe that they don’t have informants within the Black Lives Matter movement. Don’t believe that they’re not bugging and monitoring what they consider to be radical organizations. They’re America’s police and they’re still doing these things.”

MLK/FBI premiered on the festival circuit after the summertime Black Lives Matter protests cast a renewed spotlight on the treatment of Black activists by state and federal law enforcement. Now, the documentary is going into general release on the heels of the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington D.C., where many noted the stark disparity with which many of those same agencies engaged with President Trump’s largely white supporters. Pollard and his collaborators released a statement on Twitter following the Capitol riot, forcefully linking King’s past to our present. “We condemn this assault, as we condemn the values of white supremacy and authoritarian law that so obviously animate it,” the statement reads. “It is vitally important that those who identified as having participated in yesterday’s riot be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and not granted any special clemency because of the color of their skin.”

Reflecting on the events of Jan. 6 now, Pollard describes the insurrection as an example of American history repeating itself. “It’s a flashback to many of the things that America has gone through, not just in the 1960s, but also earlier than that. We need to deal with the notion that America was founded on some pretty horrific things, including slavery and the elimination of Native people. If you go back to the Tulsa Race Massacre, no one stopped those people from destroying Black communities. Law enforcement either stood by, or they were involved in it. We should really want to come to grips with that, and realize that you can't, as an American, say, “If I don't like something, I'm going to tear the country down.”

Pollard also ruefully notes the stark contrast between the images of Trump supporters rioting on the steps of the Capitol in 2021 versus the peaceful rally that King held on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 — footage that’s glimpsed throughout MLK/FBI. “The Kennedy administration was terrified at the idea of all of these people coming into Washington, but it was nonviolent and hopeful. Then you flash-forward to Jan. 6 and led by the vocal rantings of people like Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump Jr., this group of people went down there with a mission to circumvent the certification of the next president of the United States by any means necessary. It’s frightening to think about the contradictions here in America.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 (Photo: Courtesy IFC Films)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. (Photo: Courtesy IFC Films)

Despite the violence that’s accompanied the aftermath of the 2020 election, Pollard sees reasons to be hopeful about the year ahead, starting with President-elect Joe Biden entering the Oval Office on Jan. 20. “I believe he’s going to be the person that shows us how to get out of this pandemic, and help the economy rebound. It’ll be tough, and there will be people out there who felt like he never should be our president, but he’ll bring harmony and a sense of unification for our country, because he’s not out there for Joe Biden. He’s out there to be president of the people of the United States. That’s what we’ve been stressed out about these last four years: We’ve had a man in office who has never been about the people.”

It also didn’t escape Pollard’s attention that on the same day that insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, King’s home state of Georgia elected Reverend Raphael Warnock — who was born the year after King’s death and has preached at his former congregation, the Ebenezer Baptist Church, since 2005 — as its first Black senator. “There was that on Wednesday morning when I heard that Warnock had won, and I said, ‘Wow. Georgia is turned blue,’ Pollard remembers. “I thought of that King phrase: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ It’s great that he won that seat, and he’s hopefully carrying on the legacy of Dr. King and others. There needs to be more people of color in the Senate chamber.”

MLK/FBI premieres Friday, Jan. 15 in select theaters (get tickets on Fandango) and on-demand.

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