Director Sam Pollard grew up in a house with 3 photos on the wall – Martin Luther King Jr, John F. Kennedy and Jesus.
2 of those youth role models made it into his latest documentary, MLK/FBI.
Early influences aside, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker states what’s remarkable about the movie is that it’s centred on information, which by rights, should not exist.
It draws on just recently declassified files, acquired through the Liberty of Info Act and unsealed by the National Archives, to show how King was targeted by the Federal Bureau of Examination (FBI) throughout the 1950s and 1960s, right up to the day of his death.
Regardless of King’s fiercely non-violent technique to protest, the FBI once described him as “the most dangerous black male in America”, keeping in mind that he “should be damaged at all costs”.
Without weapons, or access to large wealth, King relied on the power of belief to alter a country. It was this steadfast faith coupled with his effective oratory skills that made him so dangerous to the authorities of the time.
Pollard informed Sky News: “The concept that this one male might combine a lot of individuals, particularly to the March On Washington, and end up being the leader of the civil liberties movement, needed to definitely scare someone like J. Edgar Hoover [the director of the FBI from 1935 to 1972], who basically saw America as a white nation, which had had black people on the edges.
” All of a sudden here was some black person who was saying, ‘We don’t wish to be on the edges, we want to be front and centre. We want to be a part of an integrated world’. Which made him a threat.”
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The FBI’s reaction to that viewed risk was to bug King’s hotel spaces, tap his phones and pay informants to collect huge files of details on his activities and relationships.
His rented spaces were enjoyed to see who was available in and out, and adjacent rooms were worked with in a quote to tape any illegal activity that may have occurred throughout his stay.
However while the government-approved exercise at first started as plan to reveal King to be a communist sympathiser, it soon turned into something far more salacious.
” When they began to wiretap and screen Dr King and they learnt he was having extramarital affairs, that’s when they switched gears,” Pollard describes.
While King’s long-standing association with fellow activist and lawyer Stanley Levison – a man thought to have strong links to the Communist Party – was the FBI’s validation to monitor calls under cover of national security, that relationship rapidly took second place to the freshly found sexual intermediaries.
Pollard goes on: “Essentially, they stated his connection to Levison and the Communist Celebration may not destroy him, but his illicit affairs will. And they recorded all these things and passed them on to the American press.”
The documentary shows how the FBI played on unfavorable stereotypes of black men at the time, portraying him as unable to control his sexual appetite, and therefore unfit to be leader of black America.
Nevertheless, there was a snag. Unlike today, when Pollard states “whatever is outrageous and tortured”, it was a time when more risque stories were seen as a liability rather than a scoop.
Pollard describes: “We need to remember, back in the 60s, the American press didn’t go into people’s personal lives the method we do today, it wasn’t a part of their agenda. It wasn’t something they were going to grab on to, so they all declined it.
” This made Hoover and William Sullivan [the head of FBI domestic intelligence under Hoover from 1961 to 1971] and other members of the FBI so afraid of King’s impact in America that they will have attempted to try to destroy him, as Malcolm X would state, by any methods needed.”
The most explosive moment of that attempt was available in 1964 when the FBI sent out recordings and a letter to King’s wife declaring to expose his alleged infidelities.
Calling him “a monster”, “a pervert”, “a monster” and “a hypocrite”, the inadequately typed anonymous letter concluded with a demand that King “do the something left for you to do” – extensively comprehended to be motivating him to take his own life.
In the documentary, the letter is explained by ex-FBI director James Comey as the “darkest part of the bureau’s history”.
Not material with accusations of many affairs, drinking and so-called orgies, accusations of King’s supposed presence during a supposed rape further tried to sully his reputation.
Notes from an audio recording in which King is said to be “looking on and laughing” while a woman is assaulted, raise questions due to the visual nature of the description, which appears to count on sound only.
In the weeks following the letter’s arrival, King is stated to have actually undergone a “real psychological crisis”, throughout which he ended up being “frantically afraid his sex life would be exposed in raw detail to the American public”.
In spite of the FBI’s attempts to expose King as a fraud, using the recordings as proof, no papers printed the story, his better half stood by him and he was granted the Nobel Peace Reward later that year.
Away from the now public transcripts, any more analysis of the FBI recordings will have to wait up until 2027, when they are because of be revealed as part of the MLK Records Act.
Regarding whether that release will impact King’s tradition, Pollard believes not: “It’s a various world now and the truth that he had these adulterous affairs, I do not believe you’re going to decrease who he was as a civil rights activist and leader of one of the most effective movements worldwide.”
At a time when society appears more polarised than ever, Pollard believes it will only enhance existing viewpoint: “For those who like and revere King, the release of those tapes, if they do take place, won’t mean much. And it will not alter the needle towards King for those who disliked him and what he stood for.
” It’ll say to them, ‘We were absolutely appropriate about who he was. He had this outrageous life. He was salacious, you can’t trust him. He called himself a Christian, how dare he?’.”.
Nevertheless, Pollard says there’s something even more fascinating to be exposed in the tapes, if you step far from the tabloid-pleasing accusations of hotel rollicks and extra-marital affairs.
” In those hotel spaces where [King] was sitting with [activists] like Dorothy Cotton, Clarence Jones, Ralph Abernathy, Andy Young and others part of his motion, he had strategies about how they were going to handle going to cities like Birmingham and Albany, Georgia, and even Chicago, Illinois.
” You’re going to hear the everyday things they needed to handle when they chose to move into a city to break the walls of partition. That to me is what I’m looking forward to hearing when those tapes are released.”.
King, who was understood to laugh and joke about the prospect of his death, calling it the “supreme democracy”, was shot dead on 4 April 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee.
If the recordings are unsealed as prepared, they will mark the 50-year anniversary of King’s assassination – a murder which changed the course of history – and thus a number of the last years of King’s life, happened while he was under the careful eye of the FBI.
MLK/FBI is now offered as needed, on platforms consisting of Amazon Video, Apple TELEVISION and BFI Player.