‘It took its toll’: the terrible legacy of Martin Luther King’s fight with the FBI

Charles Bramesco
·5-min read

As a child in 1960s east Harlem, documentary film-maker Sam Pollard was “profoundly touched” by two events. The assassination of John F Kennedy, in 1963, when Pollard was in junior high school. Then, five years later, the murder of Martin Luther King.

Yet as he grew up, Pollard found his memory of those events softening round the edges. “You think back and try to remember how you reacted to everything going on, particularly the March on Washington, and it all swirls around in your head,” he says. “Some things get lost. You think: ‘Wow, was that really happening?’ It’s history, but not so long ago that I can’t remember it.”

Sam Pollard
Sam Pollard: This was an opportunity to interrogate the images Martin Luther King and the FBI made for themselves, and for each other.’ Photograph: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

That is as good an explanation as any for why someone would pursue a career in archival nonfiction cinema. For Pollard – a veteran documentarian who was nominated for an Oscar for 1997’s 4 Little Girls, about the 1963 murder of black children at a Baptist church by the Ku Klux Klan – it is also the rationale behind his new feature, MLK/FBI.

The film aims to clarify and remind, looking not only at the complicated legacy of a civil rights leader who is all but enshrined as a saint, but also at the culture of federal law enforcement hostile to him and his cause. As opposing entities cloaked in nostalgia and ideology that must be peeled back to get at the truth, it is impossible to understand one without the other, Pollard believes. “I thought it could be another way to look at Dr King, and another way to break down the mythology of the FBI,” he says. “This was an opportunity to interrogate the images they’d made for themselves, and for each other.”

David Garrow’s eye-popping book The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr: From ‘Solo’ to Memphis provided what the director calls “the framework that became the genesis of the film”. Together, Pollard and Garrow expanded the research, filing countless freedom of information requests to access once-classified FBI documents.

“It’s actually not that difficult to get material from the FBI,” Pollard says with a half-laugh. “It’s just that once you do, there are always a lot of redactions in it. What will be key are the actual audiotapes that will come out in 2027. But we were still able to piece together a lot from other transcripts about how they tried to discredit Dr King.”

The tapes Pollard mentions, set for release later this decade by a 1977 court order, contain the recordings that J Edgar Hoover’s FBI surreptitiously collected through years of covert surveillance on King and his associates. The constant invasions of privacy were just one plank in a wider campaign of harassment recounted in granular detail throughout the film via pristinely preserved footage and audio. While the Bureau cultivated a fanbase through adulatory portrayals in an officially sanctioned TV series and films such as Walk a Crooked Mile and The FBI Story, it did everything in its power to undermine and defame King. His progressivism so threatened its status quo that agents sent King’s wife, Coretta, a tape of her husband allegedly conducting an extramarital affair, along with a note exhorting him to kill himself for the good of his movement.

Pollard takes a nuanced stance, laying bare the injustice without excusing King’s indiscretions. “I think the thing that’s fascinating about this material is its understanding that Dr King was a human being,” he says. “He’s put forward as an iconic presence, but I felt strongly that we wanted to represent him in a more complex way. He was a man, and like many of us, multitasking. He was leading the struggle, while dealing with his personal life and its baggage. He was wrestling with the choice to speak out against Vietnam, and the backlash he received from that. He was dealing with the knowledge that he and his associates were being constantly watched by the FBI, which also took its toll on him.”

Martin Luther King at home in May 1956
Martin Luther King at home in May 1956. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives

The film shows King in repose, around the house and at the dinner table and surrounded by family; humanising looks at a larger-than-life figure. But Pollard also engages with his subject intellectually, connecting his beliefs about protest to a US that, to this day, is fraught with racial tensions, as sentiments critical of police grow more widespread. Although King urged non-violence, a talking point centrists love to trot out as a counter to more radical demonstrations, he also said that a riot is the language of the unheard.

“Dr King makes a TV appearance,” Pollard says, “and the woman asks him: ‘Don’t you think your protests are causing the violence in these cities?’ The reality is when peaceful social protests happen, we’re saying that we want change and we’re willing to request that in a passive way. But there are people in America angrier than that who can’t take it. With enough systemic racism, people say enough is enough, then looting or burning is just what happens. Peaceful protests don’t lead to it. It’s a reaction. The death of George Floyd leads to it. The death of Breonna Taylor leads to it … What do you expect, when someone’s got their foot on your neck for hundreds of years?”

The film posits that in his wariness of authority and his commitment to equality, King would have been more attuned to the world of 2020 than most in his day. But Pollard harbours no illusions about the man’s character, and how it might be received in an era increasingly harsh about personal failings. One of MLK/FBI’s major themes is the ease with which a man’s personal life can be turned against him, a practice that has been all but mainstreamed in the years since King’s death. Between the heightened moral standards in activism and the reactionaries still raging against everything he fought for, he would be under the same ethical microscope.

“Unless he could have adapted to the time,” says Pollard, “he’d have been ripped to shreds, man,. Eaten alive.”

• MLK/FBI is released in the UK on 15 January