From the March on Washington in 1963 up until his assassination in 1968, the FBI engaged in an intense campaign to discredit Martin Luther King Jr. and his work. Film director Sam Pollard chronicles those efforts in the new documentary, MLK/FBI.
“The first fear that [FBI director J. Edgar Hoover] had was that King was going to align himself with the Communist Party, which … J. Edgar Hoover was obsessed with destroying,” Pollard says.
Pollard’s documentary is based on newly declassified files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, along with restored archival footage. It shows the government’s extensive targeting of King and his associates in the 1960s.
The FBI campaign against King began with wiretaps, but quickly ballooned. When wiretaps revealed that King was having extramarital affairs, the FBI shifted their focus to uncover all evidence of his infidelity by bugging and taping him in his hotel rooms and by paying informants to spy on him. Eventually, the FBI penned and sent King an anonymous letter, along with some of their tapes, suggesting that he should kill himself.
Reading the letter, Pollard was struck by the fact that it was made to sound like it was written by someone close to King.
“They were trying to make it sound like it was not only a former associate but a ‘Negro’ who wrote that letter,” he says. “This is supposed to be the nation’s police, that’s supposed to be doing the right thing, and this is the lengths they’ll go to destroy a human being? It’s awful.”
Pollard is an Emmy Award winner and Oscar nominee. His first work as a director was for Eyes on the Prize, a groundbreaking documentary series about the civil rights movement. He’s also edited many of Spike Lee’s movies, including Jungle Fever, Mo’ Better Blues and When the Levees Broke.
They would go into these hotels before King and his associates got there and they would be let in by the management to bug those rooms and to have the rooms next door, nearby, where they could listen in to what was going on when King and his associates took those rooms. So this was an all-out assault. And as Chuck Knox says, a former FBI agent, any time King was going to go to a new city, the agenda was FBI agents were on the move to get to those places, to start to monitor and wiretap and listen to everything that was happening within the confines of those rooms between King and his associates, members of the SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
His hope was to then pass it on to the press and that the press would publish it and it would really discredit Dr. King and his reputation as this upright Christian minister who’s leading the civil rights movement. So people would say, “Oh, how horrible his personal life is, how can we follow this man?” Now, what he didn’t bank on was back in the ’60s … the press did not take the bait. … They did not reveal the personal lives of these public figures. They didn’t do it with John Kennedy, they didn’t do it with others, and they didn’t do it with Dr. King.
The one that’s probably the most famous is Ernest Withers, the photographer, whose pictures … of the civil rights movement are considered iconic today, specifically his “I am a Man” picture. And to know that Ernest Withers, who was well respected by members of the SCLC, the fact that he was talking to the FBI sort of saddens me. But it was a pay day for him. He wasn’t making a lot of money taking pictures, and so this was to make some extra money. … And the thing that you should be aware of is that, [civil rights leader] Andy Young and Dr. King, they knew that Withers was on the payroll of the FBI. Obviously, they didn’t feel it was so dangerous so that he was giving them information.
Any time King and his associates went to a new city, the FBI was manned up to go in and follow him and surveil him, so how is it possible … [for] agents constantly surveilling King in nearby hotel rooms not to be aware of someone like James Earl Ray with a rifle who’s going to shoot Dr. King? It just doesn’t make any sense. And Andrew Young’s answer to me was that he doesn’t believe [it] was James Earl Ray at all. Obviously, somewhere in there there was some conspiracy, [which] I personally think the FBI was involved in, to take King out. I mean, it just doesn’t make sense. … And there’s got to be someplace in some archive, in some files, some tape, where we will learn the actual truth.
In the mid ’60s, when they took a poll, … J. Edgar Hoover was more popular than Dr. King. Dr. King wasn’t so popular back then. I mean, some people thought he was destroying the fabric of American democracy. Growing up as a young man, I had watched all these movies about the FBI … and I thought they were the good guys and that they were out there to take out the bad guys, be it gangsters or be it communists. So in retrospect, in seeing and realizing how popular Hoover was, it’s interesting that King has been such an iconic figure now, but he wasn’t so beloved by many Americans back then.