The moment in MLK/FBI that will, no doubt, create the most controversy and spark the most debate, actually comes near the end of Sam Pollard’s gripping and comprehensive documentary.
It involves an annotation on a newly discovered document, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and recently unsealed by the US National Archives. The document formed part of the FBI’s surveillance of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
The annotation, if true, is devastating.
It may seem strange, therefore, that Pollard waits so long to examine this revelation. However, the third act of MLK/FBI is the perfect time because, by this point in the documentary, we have the relevant context to consider its veracity.
By this point, Pollard has informed us of the wide-ranging, stop at nothing, surveillance campaign conducted by the FBI with the express aim of humiliating King in order to weaken his authority. By this point, we have heard former FBI director, James Comey, describe the campaign as “the darkest part of the bureau’s history”.
As more historical documents about King are declassified, Pollard’s film reminds us that context is critical.
MLK/FBI is based on David Garrow’s book, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From "Solo" to Memphis. Garrow is one of the documentary’s main ‘talking heads’ alongside such fascinating contributors as Andrew Young, Donna Murch, Clarence Jones and Beverly Gage.
Their voices take us on a journey from 1955 until King’s assasination on 4 April 1968. As we watch freshly restored black and white archive photos and video footage, MLK/FBI reminds us of King’s many achievements - that he “led a peaceful 20th century American revolution” and that the “non-violent civil rights movement which he headed changed the face of American society”.
Pollard explores how King’s inspirational charisma and success disturbed many of those in powerful positions in America. For example, Clarence Jones tells us that, days after King’s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963, WC Sullivan, the FBI’s domestic intelligence operations director (1961-1971), sent an urgent memo stating that “we must mark him now as the most dangerous negro in the future of this nation.”
Sullivan recommended using all available resources to destroy King. Initially, the FBI concentrated on linking King with communism (largely because of his close association with Stanley Levison). However, before long, things became devastatingly personal.
Sam Pollard’s documentary is called MLK/FBI for good reason. In addition to examining King’s life, the film also explores the history of the FBI and the role of J Edgar Hoover - who was, of course, the bureau’s director for an incredible 48 years.
We learn that Hoover believed communists to be the ultimate subversives. He argued that King was a threat to national security and, as a result, was given permission to wiretap his telephones, spy on his activities and bug his hotel rooms.
Without approval or authority, the FBI’s surveillance developed from an exploration into King’s supposed communist links to become a distasteful investigation into his private life. However, much to Hoover’s frustration, King only became more powerful.
After King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Hoover called him a “notorious liar” and the FBI’s campaign became increasingly toxic. As Pollard’s film lingers on footage of King’s face, so he becomes ever more human, ever more vulnerable.
Hoover’s actions seem unthinkable to us today. However, MLK/FBI reminds us that his opinions were not, in fact, unpopular. At the time, King was the controversial figure, not Hoover. Beverly Gage explains that Hoover’s campaign was both widely known and widely supported. The FBI was part of the mainstream political order.
Pollard’s documentary argues that it is dangerous to forget these facts. To ignore the truth - to sanitise history for our own convenience - would do King and his many achievements a grave disservice.
The earliest date that the FBI’s surveillance tapes of King can be released is February 2027. When asking his contributors to consider the potential impact of these tapes, Pollard finally shows their faces. We all have a responsibility when considering our history.
Whatever happens in 2027 - whatever we find out - I hope that we handle the information sensitively, responsibly and that we make sure to consider the context.