Review: ‘MLK/FBI,’ starring Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young, Clarence Jones, Beverly Gage, Donna Murch and David Garrow

January 18, 2021

by Carla Hay

Martin Luther King Jr. in “MLK/FBI” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“MLK/FBI”

Directed by Sam Pollard

Culture Representation: The documentary “MLK/FBI” features an American group of white and black scholars, authors, civil rights activists and law enforcement officials commenting on American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. being a target of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), led by J. Edgar Hoover, when King was at the height of his power in the 1960s.

Culture Clash: King’s civil rights activism and vocal opposition to the Vietnam War angered high-ranking U.S. government officials, who labeled him as an enemy.

Culture Audience: “MLK/FBI” will appeal primarily to people interested in King’s legacy, the history of U.S. civil rights and reports involving government conspiracies.

Martin Luther King Jr. (speaking at podium) in “MLK/FBI” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The riveting documentary “MLK/FBI” gives a clear and precise presentation of how the FBI targeted civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. King, who was also a Baptist minister, was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, at the age of 39. It isn’t a secret that the FBI, under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, had intense surveillance of King and plotted to dig up scandalous information on him, in order to disgrace King and take away his power. The FBI documents detailing this surveillance have been declassified and are available for public viewing. What “MLK/FBI” (directed by Sam Pollard) does notably is provide an important historical context of what was going on in King’s life that escalated the FBI’s scrutiny of him.

“MLK/FBI” immerses viewers into King’s civil rights years by having almost nothing but archival footage from this era. The only exception is toward the end of the documentary, when several of the commentators who are interviewed or shown on camera during the last 10 minutes of this 106-minute film. Prior to being shown on screen, the commentators are only heard in voiceovers.

Many documentaries fall into a trap of interviewing too many people, which can often overstuff a documentary and make it too messy and unfocused. Instead, “MLK/FBI” wisely took a “less is more” approach. Only eight people are interviewed in the documentary. They are:

  • James Comey, FBI director from 2013 to 2017
  • Beverly Gage, Yale University history professor and author of “G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the American Century”
  • David Garrow, author of “The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr.: From ‘Solo’ to Memphis” (which is the basis of the “MLK/FBI” documentary) and “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference”
  • Clarence Jones, attorney and former speechwriter who worked with King
  • Charles Knox, retired FBI special agent in counterintelligence
  • Donna Murch, Rutgers University history professor and author of “Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California”
  • Marc Perrusquia, journalist for the Memphis-based newspaper The Commercial Appeal
  • Andrew Young, civil rights activist and former politician who was executive director of Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) from 1964 to 1969. King was the first president of SCLC, which was launched in 1957.

All of them except for Perrusquia and Comey (who doesn’t say much in the movie) appear on camera at the end of the documentary. But what they all have to say confirms that by the time that King was murdered, the FBI had labeled him a menace to society and he lost the support of U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ). In addition to King’s political activities making him a target of the FBI, his marital infidelities became the focus of a smear campaign to ruin his credibility as a moral leader.

It’s already been widely reported that the FBI’s plan, according to declassified documents, was to expose salacious details about King’s sex life. The FBI audio recorded many of his trysts with women by spying in hotels and various other places, and placing recording devices in the rooms where King was staying. King and many of his close associates had their homes “bugged” with surveillance devices, and their phones were wiretapped.

The documentary mentions that in 1977, the FBI was ordered to turn over the surveillance tapes to the National Archives. These sealed recordings can be unsealed and released to the public in 2027. While retired FBI agent Knox says in the “MLK/FBI” documentary that no good come from releasing the tapes, most of the other pundits in the documentary say that it’s in the public’s best interest to know what’s on the tapes.

There’s no doubt very explicit sexual content on the tapes, and it’s been public knowledge for decades that King cheated on his wife Coretta. But aside from the sexual content, the curiosity about the tapes has a lot to do with how far the FBI went in trying to bring down King and ruin him. Who was worse in the failings of morality and ethics? The FBI or King?

“MLK/FBI” also mentions a disturbing allegation noted in the FBI surveillance documents: During an alleged sex orgy, King allegedly stood by and laughed while witnessing an unnamed Baltimore minister rape a woman. However, Murch, Gage and some of the other documentary pundits point out that what the FBI agents reported should get some level of scrutiny and skepticism, since the FBI agents who were spying on King were rewarded for digging up the nastiest dirt possible on King. Therefore, it’s likely that some FBI agents might have been motivated to exaggerate or fabricate information that was put in the written documents.

It’s not a mystery why King became a target of the FBI. Gage comments: “The FBI was most alarmed about King because of his success. And they were particularly concerned that he was this powerful, charismatic figure who had the power to mobilize people.” Murch adds that civil rights leaders are often seen as heroes by the general public but are branded as “troublemakers” or “threats” by law enforcement: “When you look at the social movements from the point of view of the FBI, it looks very different … J. Edgar Hoover is famous for saying that he feared a black Messiah.”

Young and Jones, the close confidants of King who are interviewed in “MLK/FBI,” both say that the U.S. government underestimated King and then eventually began to fear him. King advocated for a non-violent civil rights movement, in keeping with his Christian faith. It’s a philosophy that not everyone agreed with (such as the Black Panthers and other left-wing groups) because these critics of King’s non-violent approach felt that the use of violent force was necessary to get things done.

Young comments on being involved in a grassroots movement for social change where King told activists not to use weapons and to treat their oppressors with kindness: “He let us accept the fact that what we were doing was insane … We were trusting in the power of God, and only crazy kind of people of faith would be willing to put their lives on the line and trust in God.”

What wasn’t crazy was Jones’ paranoia that King and his closest associates were under FBI surveillance. Jones found out that his own home was “bugged” and wiretapped when his wife told him about men who came to their house while Jones was away. These men claimed to be phone company employees who were ordered by Jones to work on the house’s phones.

However, what the men said was a lie because Jones made no such request. Jones says that King didn’t believe at first that the FBI would go to the trouble of spying on King. However, King got a rude awakening when the FBI sent sexually explicit recordings of his infidelities to King and his wife, with a cruel note saying that King should kill himself.

According to the documentary, the FBI also leaked some of these sex recordings to the media when King was alive, but the media refused to report these scandalous details, much to the annoyance of Hoover. Ironically, Hoover had his own sexual proclivities that he wanted to keep secret from the public. The documentary alludes to Hoover’s reported homosexuality (without mentioning that he was also a cross-dresser in private), but doesn’t sink into tabloid territory by going into tawdry details, since the movie is about King, not Hoover’s private life.

However, the documentary repeatedly names Hoover (who founded the FBI and was the FBI’s leader from 1935 to 1972) and William C. Sullivan (who was FBI director of domestic intelligence operations from 1961 to 1971) as the chief instigators of the campaign to ruin King’s life. According to Jones, the FBI under Hoover’s leadership had this attitude toward King: “We must mark him now as the most dangerous Negro in the future of this nation.”

King’s close friendship with attorney/accountant Stanley Levison, who got to know King through Jones, also made King a target of Hoover’s Communist-hating FBI because Levison was a known Communist associate. As Garrow explains it in the documentary, the FBI went to then-U.S. attorney general Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) and then-U.S. president John F. Kennedy Jr. (JFK) to warn the two brothers about King’s ties to Levison. RFK then advised King to distance himself from Levison, and King agreed.

But in reality, the FBI found out through surveillance that King still secretly kept in touch with Levison. The FBI took this information back to RFK as “proof” that King couldn’t be trusted. RFK then authorized the wiretaps of King. But what started out as surveillance of King as a perceived “Communist threat” turned into something much more personal when the FBI discovered that King was a serial cheater in his marriage.

The FBI surveillance wasn’t the only way that the FBI dug up dirt on King. The FBI also paid informants who were either part of King’s inner circle or had regular close access to King. It’s explained that because FBI agents at the time were almost all white men who couldn’t go undercover as black people, the FBI used black people as informants to get other inside information on King. Two of the African American informants named in the documentary are photojournalist Ernest Withers and SCLC comptroller Jim Harrison. None of this is new information, since it was reported decades ago.

The documentary also chronicles how the FBI’s vendetta against King went public when Hoover ignited a feud with King in 1964, when he told reporters at a press conference in Washington, D.C., that King was “the most notorious liar in the country.” King then offered to meet with Hoover to try to sort out their differences. That closed-door meeting, which was the first and only time that King and Hoover met in person, was described as “very friendly” by King in the documentary’s archival footage of King being surrounded by reporters after coming out of the meeting.

However “friendly” that meeting might have been, it didn’t stop the FBI surveillance, and King continued to speak out and protest against racial injustice. And he also took up the cause of the anti-Vietnam War movement. LBJ was King’s ally until King began speaking out against the Vietnam War.

It’s pointed out in the documentary that in 1965, King had abided by LBJ’s request to stay publicly silent about the Vietnam War. King heeded that request until 1967, when he saw a photo spread in Ramparts magazine that had graphically gruesome photos of Vietnamese people (particularly children) who were bombing victims in the war. Footage of King’s famous 1967 anti-Vietnam War speech at Riverside Church in New York City is included in the documentary.

King was assassinated shortly after he announced the Poor People’s Campaign protests to march near government buildings and demand more resources for financially disadvantaged people. A longtime criminal named James Earl Ray was arrested and convicted of the murder, but some of the documentary’s pundits imply that Ray was not someone who acted alone to plan this heinous crime.

In addition to a wealth of archival visual footage (which naturally includes King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington), “MLK/FBI” also includes snippets of audio recordings that were secret at the time. There’s an undated audio clip of a conversation between LBJ and an unidentified FBI agent. In the conversation, LBJ says he’s being pressured to attend a dinner in New York with King, and he wonders if he should still go. The FBI agent advises LBJ not to attend the dinner. (The clip doesn’t say which dinner this was, so viewers won’t know if LBJ actually did attend or not.)

For some added pop-culture context, “MLK/FBI” also includes clips from the 1959 movie “The FBI Story” (starring James Stewart as a loyal FBI agent) and the 1948 film “Walk a Crooked Mile,” starring Dennis O’Keefe as a crusading FBI agent who teams up with a Scotland Yard detective to track down Communists. These clips are used in “MLK/FBI” to contrast the heroic images of FBI agents in entertainment media with the sinister reality of what the FBI was doing behind the scenes to King.

Several of the people interviewed in “MLK/FBI” say that the real motive to make King a target of FBI surveillance wasn’t because he was a threat to U.S. democracy but because he was a threat to white supremacy. After all, King preached non-violence and he was definitely not a Communist. King’s colleague Young says in the documentary: “In a very emotional and volatile environment, it was very important for us to come across as reasonable, sane and patriotic—because we were. We just wanted America to be what America said it was supposed to be.” Tragically, King was murdered for these beliefs, but his civil rights legacy continues to live on.

IFC Films released “MLK/FBI” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on January 15, 2021.