In the first days of the protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, a number of people cited Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil disobedience to condemn looting. The implication was that there was a “right way” for Black Lives Matter protestors to denounce police brutality, and that King’s example should prevail. Yet the popular view of a person’s legacy is often an oversimplification (sometimes a convenient fiction) of someone with multifaceted views.
For all the online outcry against property damage, King himself acknowledged that a riot is the language of the unheard; that despite gestures toward racial progress, there’s continued injustice against black people in America that is not acknowledged. King spoke specifically of growing economic inequality in the mid-1960s, which has never been addressed. In the case of Black Lives Matter, the urgency of the movement is primarily about the death of George Floyd. And Breonna Taylor. And Ahmaud Arbery. And Eric Garner. And Michael Brown. And Tamir Rice. And Botham Jean. And Philando Castile. And Trayvon Martin. And Sandra Bland. And Amadou Diallo. And countless other names going back to Emmett Till and well before.
I bring up the myopic version of MLK’s activism because Sam Pollard’s documentary MLK/FBI reminds viewers that King was considered a subversive in his time. King’s calls for social and economic equality for black Americans were viewed unfavorably by the conservative white status quo. The mere hint of communist leanings prompted J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI to set up a surveillance apparatus against King in an attempt to smear him and discredit his work.
Director: Sam Pollard
Release Date: January 15, 2021
MLK/FBI is based on David Garrow’s book FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr: From “Solo” to Memphis. Pollard mostly avoids talking heads throughout most of MLK/FBI, instead opting for interview subjects speaking over archival footage. The approach features some remarkable clips of people bussing to the March on Washington, and riding in a wagon train to the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968. We also see television interviews with King where he tries to politely rebuff white condescension and gentility.
There’s a certain weariness that creeps into footage of King as the film goes on. This is partially a result of the FBI’s increased surveillance efforts and attempts to undermine the civil rights leader for his infidelity. The film notes how the public knowledge of his affairs weighed on his mind. That look of weariness may also be the demeanor of someone trying to fight the good fight knowing that the fight is endless.
The use of archival footage helps Pollard and editor/co-writer Laura Tomaselli explore the media’s complicity in presenting the FBI as a righteous force for good. It’s the same way cops are often depicted positively on film and television. Clips of Jimmy Stewart in The FBI Story and shows like The F.B.I. (as seen in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood) depict G-men as squeaky-clean crusaders for all-American values. What a convenient fiction. The same goes for media depictions that fed into the stereotype of the lecherous black man. King’s real sexual indiscretions combined with racist attitudes about the sexual appetites of black men might be wielded against King’s moral cause. Even if his politics are right, Hoover seemed bent on decrying King as a hypocrite.
Hoover’s FBI were mostly tall conservatives who could deem anyone outside of the prevailing white mainstream as a subversive and potential danger to the republic. The grim implication is that the FBI wanted King to fail, especially once he called for an end to violence and human suffering in Vietnam. The Lyndon Johnson administration was seemingly allied with King, yet criticism of the Vietnam War created fissures in that political alliance. It also soured the already ambivalent public perceptions about King among white Americans. King is quoted now as a noble non-violent exemplar, but in the year before his murder, King was lambasted because of his commitment to non-violence.
MLK/FBI‘s sobering exploration of mainstream American politics in King’s time makes me think of contemporary American views of BLM and antifa. The past-is-prologue implication is intentional. At least six activists from the 2014 Ferguson protests have died, some under potentially sinister circumstances. If you attend a protest today, it’s wise caution to avoid taking photos of protestors’ faces so they can’t be tracked down by law enforcement. The same goes for guarding your location and communication data on your phone. The concern of federal surveillance is real, and always has been. Even legitimate criticism of an unjust system is considered subversive by the people who want to maintain the status quo.
As the film winds down, we’re told that the FBI’s surveillance tapes of King will be declassified in 2027. Based on accounts in the film, there may be something troubling on the recordings that go beyond infidelity. When the film’s commentators finally appear as talking heads, and they all steel themselves for what’s to come. The authors and scholars note that a person’s private life shouldn’t undo the good they did in the world, but these moral shortcomings are part of the complex portrait of a person that has to be considered. I’m left wondering how the FBI will, in the end, affect King’s historical legacy. He may not be discredited when the tapes are released, as Hoover might have wanted, but who knows how the public will use that material to draft its convenient fictions in the years ahead.