New Film Documents FBI’s Surveillance of Martin Luther King

By N. Jamiyla Chisholm Sep 14, 2020

It’s no historical secret that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), led by J. Edgar Hoover, monitored Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement.

But many of the records have remained classified until recent years and resulting releases, including a massive "records dump" last year. Now, the first film to focus on the FBI’s surveillance and harassment of King, “MLK/FBI”—done with the help of newly discovered and declassified intelligence files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and the National Archives, according to the film’s website—will stream on TIFF September 15-September 18 and virtually at the New York Film Festival on September 21.

Check out the trailer below:

Directed by Emmy Award-winner and Oscar-nominee Sam Pollard, and based on the book “The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From ‘Solo’ to Memphis” by David J. Garrow, the documentary highlights the different lengths that Hoover and the FBI took to destroy King by exposing his private life. According to civil rights icon and former House Rep. Andrew Young (D-Ga.), it was the historic August 23, 1963, March on Washington that really got in Hoover’s craw. 

“We had been through the battles in Birmingham and we thought that was the movement, and it was,” Young said. “But after it was over, we realized that what had happened was the March on Washington took a Black Southern movement and turned it into a national and international movement for human rights.”

King emerged as a national figure in 1955 when he started collaborating and organizing with activists in Alabama. By the time of the March, the Black Southern movement had blown up and set Hoover on edge. The film makes clear he saw King as a radical who had Communist ties and who was using Communism to trick Black people into fighting for freedom. “MLK/FBI” also notes that Hoover’s suspicion of King erupted into combustible jealousy when the latter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Soon, the FBI began looking into King’s sexual life, which the documentary addresses, including allegations that King egged on a rape. What Pollard finds is that multiple government entities allowed violations of King’s privacy.

“What we arrived on after scouring the documents and looking at the facts is that the FBI was so frightened and afraid of this man they were willing to go to any lengths to destroy his reputation,” Pollard said in a statement. He went on to say, “King was pitted against the entire power structure of the government, in that the White House was privy to the surveillance. They would listen in on the recordings. The congressional committees all knew about it. Nobody stopped it.”

The film weaves together archival FBI documentation, videos and photographs of King, Hoover, March on Washington organizer Bayard Rustin, lawyer and movement fundraiser Stanley Davis Levison, and close King advisor Clarence Jones, who told a story of learning that his phone had been wiretapped. To explain the historical groundwork laid out by the FBI, Pollard also includes off-camera interviews with cultural figures such as former FBI director James Comey, Yale history professor Beverly Gage, King biographer David Garrow, retired FBI agent Charles Knox, Rutgers history professor Donna Murch, journalist Marc Perrusquia and Young.

To learn more about the film and where to screen it, visit its website here. You can view the trailer above.