Every year around Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. day, I get annoyed. I love that we celebrate the life and work of Dr. King, but I hate that his image is reduced into something that it wasn’t. He becomes cuddly Dr. King, a representative for peace and love that never made any white person uncomfortable. America was racist, Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, and racism was over. That kind of childish view is why a documentary like Sam Pollard’s new documentary MLK/FBI is so essential. It shows King as a political actor working against political forces that saw his desire for change as dangerous to a racist status quo. Through newly uncovered documents, Pollard’s film shows how the FBI fought back against King and how we must reckon with what American institutions do in our name.
Pollard chronicles the rise of King through how he was seen by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Placed into a political context, Hoover viewed King as a potential communist threat because anything that threatened to disrupt the way Hoover viewed America—as white, male-dominated, and conservative—was a potential communist threat. Hoover and his cohorts also brough their racism to bear in believing that the Black community could be easily influenced by the allure of communism due to their “simple” minds and anger at how they had been mistreated by America for the country’s entire history (it never occurred to Hoover’s FBI that Black people are our greatest patriots as they fight to fulfill America’s promise). The FBI proceeded to surveil King and learned he was having extramarital affairs, which they then used as blackmail to push King to commit suicide.
For those who are already familiar with the history between King and the FBI, MLK/FBI doesn’t offer much in the way of new information, although the analysis it includes from contemporaries and historians does provide some worthwhile insight into the history of King and the FBI as an organization. The documentary’s greatest strength and how it connects to our current moment is how the status quo fights to keep things the same for those in power. King did not operate in a vacuum, and while we like to reduce his foes to a bunch of faceless white racists in the South, MLK/FBI shows that a celebrated and beloved organization like the FBI was also actively working against King because of their racism. To try and defend the FBI as merely “fighting communism” misses the racist attitudes of those in power, especially when King bravely spoke out against the war in Vietnam (for more on that, I recommend checking out Peter W. Kunhardt’s 2018 documentary King in the Wilderness).
MLK/FBI doesn’t make for an “entertaining” documentary, but it is a highly educational one, and I’d go so far to say it’s an essential teaching tool for high schoolers learning about the Civil Rights Movement. We need to move away from a whitewashed version of our history where King was always accepted. There’s a jaw-dropping moment where some doofus carries a sign reading, “No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Whitey”, a reference to a likely apocryphal Muhammed Ali quote saying, “No Viet Cong Ever Called Me [n-word].” The white grievance in our country remains strong, and pretending that Dr. King was a nice man who everybody liked does a disservice to his work and his legacy. Pollard’s documentary works to reclaim that legacy while also acknowledging King’s infidelities.
The tapes the FBI recorded of King having affairs won’t be released until 2027, but once you accept that King probably did have extramarital relations, you simply have to assess that into your understanding of him as an individual. For the FBI, this was ammunition, and the documentary goes so far as to claim that it tied into the racist belief that Black men have insatiable sexual appetites. I won’t tell anyone how to feel about King’s affairs, but personally, they don’t bother me, and the documentary doesn’t seem particularly offended by them either. Perhaps if King’s mission in life had been about the sanctity of marriage, we’d feel differently, but today they look more like a personal failing rather than a damning hypocrisy, and certainly not worthy of encouraging a man to commit suicide.
The legacy we have to wrestle with in MLK/FBI is not King’s, but the FBI’s, and it’s clear the FBI has never really accounted for its history. It’s fine to have former director James Comey say it was the bureau’s “darkest chapter”, but MLK/FBI is at its strongest when it functions as a warning about the lengths institutions will go in order to protect the status quo from which they derive their power. As law enforcement in our country comes under closer scrutiny, we need to understand that the values they claim to uphold are not values they intend for everyone, and that enforcement can render an organization like the FBI into both cop and criminal. With MLK/FBI, Pollard has crafted not only an important history lesson, but a potent cautionary tale.