Llast year, an explosive mine of alleged information about the private life of Martin Luther King, Jr. first became available in written FBI reports and surveillance summaries.
Quietly uploaded to the National Archives website and buried among tens of thousands of government documents, the reports revealed the insane lengths to which J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI went to monitor, harass and even attempt to drive King to suicide – all to expose what Hoover and his G-men claimed in a racist panic the hypocrisy of a moral leader of a nation engaging in “degenerate” sex acts in private. The married civil rights icon with four children has had extramarital affairs during his travels across the country; this is known, affirmed by some of his closest surviving confidants.
The truth of the rest is more vague. But seven years from now, when the rest of the FBI King file is unsealed, there will likely be a full examination of the darkest allegation in the documents, involving rape. It will be important that when the time comes, the context of King’s strained relationship with the FBI is not forgotten.
Director Sam Pollard’s next documentary MLK / FBI, which now plays via the DOC NYC festival and is slated for release in January from IFC Films, is dedicated to examining this context through a broad historical lens. This includes what some of the sensational initial responses to the FBI reports overlooked, namely a healthy skepticism about the FBI’s surveillance and recording methods and a focus on the racist fears behind Hoover’s mission to destroy King. at the height of the civil rights movement. Rather than simply relaying the sinister FBI version of King’s sex life, he paints a portrait of a more complicated – and controversial in his day – revolutionary than the reductive and often sanitized avatar of nonviolence trotted every year. for the likes of social media (often by the same politicians actively working against what King fought for).
The film resonates painfully against the backdrop of widespread voter suppression in communities of color across the United States today and the resurgence of protests against police brutality. It offers a stark reminder of why the struggle for the civil rights of blacks and the poor remains so urgent. Plus, by simply letting King and his opponents speak for themselves, the film provides glaring proof of how white America’s fear of social progress is not an anomaly adjacent to Trump – it is an overwhelming founding element of our dominant political order.
Through archival footage, photographs, and interviews with historians, King’s confidants and former FBI agents, MLK / FBI offers in part an anatomy of the motivations of the white and conservative FBI of J. Edgar Hoover. In the 1960s, the lawless COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) bordering on the Bureau had explicitly defined as one of its main objectives the prevention of the rise of a black “messiah”. After observing the electrifying effect of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 march to Washington, Bureau Deputy Commander and Head of Home Intelligence William C. Sullivan sent an urgent note about King : “We must mark him now as the most dangerous Negro in the future of this nation.
Part of his fears were about Communism. With the permission of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the FBI began bugging a friend of King’s, an attorney named Stanley Levison. A progressive white Jewish activist, Levison was a former member of the American Communist Party and helped organize and write speeches for King. Hoover’s fear that black Americans would fall under the influence of Communism prompted then-President John F. Kennedy to advise King to sever ties with Levison. King assured him he would. But the wiretap revealed the two kept in touch long after King’s promise.
The deception was enough to convince Bobby Kennedy, under pressure from Hoover, to allow a wiretap on King himself in Atlanta at his home and at the offices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Neither Hoover nor Sullivan mentioned to Kennedy that the Bureau had shifted its focus from sniffing out King’s potential communist influences to exposing the private life of the civil rights leader.
The Bureau realized it could exploit King’s personal life by accident – a chance call King made while staying at another friend the FBI had bugged, lawyer and speechwriter Clarence Jones had warned them. Jones himself knew his home had been bugged, and remembers his months and years of suspicion that the FBI was also spying on King. He says King got annoyed with him for it. “Clarence, don’t you know the FBI has better and more important things to do than listen to our phones?” he says King told him. Neither was aware that the Bureau had since continued to follow King across the country, paying informants to find out where he was, placing bugs in his hotel rooms. and listen from the next room.
“Neither was aware that the Bureau had since continued to follow King across the country, paying informants to find out where he was, placing bugs in his hotel rooms. and listen from the next room.“
That changed the day an unaddressed envelope, containing a tape of alleged recordings of King having sex with women in hotels, arrived at the house King shared with his wife, Coretta. With that came an anonymous note from a fictional ex-admirer (actually written by Sullivan posing as one of the “us Negros”) calling King a “beast”, “sexually psychotic” and “fraud.” He would say “I know what you did” and give King 34 days. King understood the implication: the writer wanted him to commit suicide.
“We always assumed who was behind it,” says Andrew Young, SCLC executive director and close friend of King’s. This deadline came and went without repercussions. But King has lived since then in fear of his personal life being exposed. Hoover, meanwhile, became obsessed – and increasingly frustrated that no church or media that he kept looking for information was biting.
Hoover’s alarm was heightened when in 1968 King announced the Campaign of the Poor, which would bring together poor Americans from all walks of life to march on Washington, DC: “Blacks, Mexican Americans, American Indians , Puerto Ricans, Appalachian Whites, all are working together to solve the problem of poverty. As the march on FBI territory approached, Sullivan returned to the main FBI surveillance report on King, the one he intended to use to indict him. He began to scribble handwritten notes in the margins. Next to a section describing the alleged rape by another Baptist pastor of a parishioner in a Washington hotel room in 1964, Sullivan wrote: “King looked and laughed and offered advice. This is the most inflammatory allegation in the document, and one that comes with many red flags.
“This is the most inflammatory allegation in the document, and one that comes with many red flags.“
It was not a victim who made this allegation; it was the FBI, the movie reminds us. And agents like those listening in the next room were rewarded for providing information about King that adhered to Hoover and Sullivan’s view of him as a sex freak. These notes are based on audio recordings, but the note alleges that King “watched”. How did Sullivan or the agents know this? In other words, the agents came to many conclusions based on their own subjective judgments. The timing of the note itself is strange; if the agents in the hotel room had seen their primary target do something so heinous, why was it not in the original report? And if the rape did occur, did the officers just listen in from the next room and do nothing?
The tapes and full transcripts on which the FBI based its summaries and reports are under seal until February 2027, leaving the issue of this rape allegation unresolved. In its place, MLK / FBI provides a crucial portrait of the popular prejudices against King and black Americans at the time, the genre Hoover and Sullivan shared. This is the context in which their Office’s claims must be balanced.
Among these prejudices: the American tradition of demonizing black male sexuality. The opinion that blacks, demanding not only symbolic integration, but full integration and equal rights, demanded too much. The stubborn belief that the police were justified in their violent and unprovoked attacks on peaceful protesters The underhanded idea that black people simply had to get up by their own boots, ignoring the poverty that slavery and segregation left behind. “It is a cruel joke to tell a man without boots to lift himself by his own boots,” as King put it.
Pollard includes news from ordinary people on the streets voicing their opinions on King. “He’s too bossy. He thinks he’s too smart, ”said an older white woman, narrowing her nose. “All the trouble he’s caused in this country, all these riots and everything. I think he’s about the worst – if he’s a human, about the worst in the world, ”says a blond from the South in his 30s.
In a TV interview, Gay journalist Pauley Sehon, smiling all the way, tries to get King to answer why “non-violence always ends in violence”. She asks if he is sowing “resentment” among whites, “the feeling that the nigger moves too fast, asks too much too suddenly.” It is all as selfish and ignorant – yet familiar – as the conservative opposition to today’s civil rights movements. In this way, MLK / FBI is as much about the government’s persecution of King as it is about the timelessness of white America’s fear of change.
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