In contemporary American culture, it’s hard to think of a figure more universally praised than Martin Luther King. People across the political spectrum frequently cite King to buttress whatever their own beliefs are (often in sharp contrast to what King actually stood for). King has both a monument in the nation’s capital and a federal holiday, two honors mostly reserved for US presidents.
Yet when King was alive he was deeply reviled and maligned — including by US government institutions. A new documentary, MLK/FBI, explores how the Federal Bureau of Investigation surveilled and actually sought to destroy the civil rights icon.
The documentary recounts the story of the FBI’s surveillance against King, and how what began as part of their anti-communist mission transformed into an almost personal vendetta. The FBI’s surveillance of King started when in 1962 the FBI learned of his association with Stanley Levison, a Jewish attorney who was one of King’s most important advisors and who at one point during the 1950s had been a supporter of the Communist Party.
FBI head J. Edgar Hoover took this information to then–Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who was both publicly committed to civil rights and anti-communism. Kennedy allowed the FBI to wiretap Levison. When King visited the White House after the 1963 March on Washington, President John F. Kennedy personally invited him to the Rose Garden so as to warn him to break all ties with Levison.
By 1963, the FBI was wiretapping Levison and another King associate, Clarence Jones. Jones had served as an intermediary between the two men. The FBI had expected to discover that Levison was still deeply involved with the Communist Party. Instead, they learned the opposite was true. But while Levinson may have no longer been a Communist, the FBI confirmed that King had refused to break ties with his ally just because powerful people had advised him to do so.
The documentary asserts that King simply did not believe information from the FBI. From the tap on Jones’s phone, the FBI also learned that King was engaged in extramarital affairs.
At this point, Hoover and the FBI’s director of domestic intelligence, William Sullivan, became obsessed with King’s personal behavior. They went to Attorney General Kennedy and asked for a wiretap on King. The official reasoning was to determine if there was Communist influence on the Civil Rights Movement. They cited King’s failure to sever connections with Levinson as the reason for concern. The film implies the real reason the FBI wanted this wiretap was to collect salacious material about King so that the bureau could assassinate his character.
And collect information they did. The FBI not only wiretapped King, they planted listening devices in his hotel rooms and placed informants in his organization. At one point, Sullivan edited together a number of audio recordings allegedly of King during extramarital relations.
Sullivan wrote a letter, falsely purporting to be from a disillusioned black follower of King, instructing King to kill himself or have his personal life exposed. Sullivan sent the letter along with the pornographic audio recording to King. His wife Coretta Scott King opened it. According to the film, this caused King immense distress — something the FBI, of course, documented at the time through its own surveillance.
While gathering this information on King, the FBI shared it with journalists, clergy, and other King supporters in hopes of destroying him. Much to Hoover and Sullivan’s anger, they had no takers.
King and Hoover
In 1964, Hoover’s dispute with King became public when Hoover called him the “most notorious liar in the country.” Polls showed that Americans overwhelming sided with Hoover over King.
While King knew Hoover and his G-Men were out to destroy him, he had been warned to avoid any type of public feud with Hoover. At the time, Hoover was, unlike King, an immensely popular figure. The ultimate outcome of Hoover’s public attacks on King was a meeting between the FBI director and the civil rights leader in Hoover’s office, which created the public image of a potential detente without actually halting the FBI’s war on King.
At the same time Hoover, Sullivan, and the FBI were obsessively trying to destroy King, the civil rights icon enjoyed a positive relationship with the White House. President Lyndon Johnson considered him an important ally and invited him to attend public signings of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. This, of course, changed when King made a fateful decision to follow his conscience in opposing the US’s brutal war in Vietnam.
After King publicly rebuked the war in 1965, friends in the Democratic Party establishment quickly hushed him into silence. While awaiting a plane to Jamaica, King picked up a copy of the radical magazine Ramparts at an airport. The cover story was a series of gruesome photographs depicting the effects of napalm on Vietnamese children. These images weighed heavily on King’s mind, as did his own decision to remain silent as his government carried out atrocities abroad.
On April 4, 1967, King announced from the pulpit of Riverside Church that at a certain point, “silence becomes betrayal.” In denouncing the criminal conduct of his own government in Vietnam, King also pointed out that US spending on militarism meant diminished social spending at home.
It is hard to overstate the vicious reaction from the liberal establishment to King’s political heresy. The New York Times and Washington Post attacked King with a fervor rivaling that of Southern segregationists. As the film’s archival footage reminds us, not even the NAACP would stand with King after he attacked the war. And Johnson was furious — allowing Hoover to escalate his campaign against King.
Near the end of King’s life, he began work on his most radical project yet: the Poor People’s Campaign. King hoped to create an encampment of poor people of all races from around the country in the nation’s capital, forcing government action to address economic inequality.
King did not live to see the project come to fruition. One year to the day of his speech attacking the Vietnam War, a sniper at the Lorraine Motel assassinated King. At the time, he was supporting a sanitation workers strike in Memphis, Tennessee. James Earl Ray was arrested in London. He had fake passports on him and was supposedly en route to Rhodesia.
The Assassination of King
Ray pled guilty to King’s murder, largely to avoid the death penalty, but later recanted. King’s family, closest advisers, and those present at the Lorraine Motel did not believe Ray to be the guilty party — a sentiment expressed in the film by Andrew Young, a King confidante with King at his assassination.
Without going into alternative explanations of King’s assassination, MLK/FBI raises the question that is impossible to ignore: if the FBI was devoting massive resources to tracking King’s every move and utterance, how could they have failed to note an assassination plot against him?
Charles Knox, a former FBI agent interviewed in the film, states what while he never saw evidence that FBI headquarters knew about the plot and failed to act, “it was the question everyone had, because it was a legitimate question. Why did we not intercede if we were there?”
There are two important points here. First, King was wiretapped and recorded with the knowledge of the two top FBI figures, at least one attorney general, and likely two sitting presidents. In spite of the incredibly intrusive surveillance, none of it was predicated on King having committed a crime. The stated purpose was to find out if Communists were influencing King — not even if he was a Communist himself. Both being a Communist and talking to Communists are fully protected by the First Amendment. Needless to say, neither justifies surveillance.
The program King was originally targeted under was the FBI’s Communist Infiltration (COMINFL) program. COMINFL allowed the FBI to turn its anti-communist mandate on any group or movement it thought might be influenced or infiltrated by Communists. It was COMINFL that initially allowed the FBI to keep tabs on the Civil Rights Movement, which the FBI was particularly suspicious of for anticommunist reasons.
Ethics and the FBI
The second issue raised by the film is how we are to cope with the FBI’s voyeuristic surveillance of King. Yale historian and Hoover biographer Beverly Gage stresses recordings of King’s consensual sexual encounters and the scores of FBI files summarizing them are not materials we should have in the first place. Thanks to the FBI’s invasion of King’s privacy, we are invited to invade his privacy again and again.
The documentary is partially based on the 1981 book The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr by David Garrow. Garrow also wrote Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, for which he won a Pulitzer. Yet in 2019, Garrow’s writings on King made headlines for very different reasons. Garrow uncovered, in an FBI master document of supposed dirt on King, claims that King was present at a rape.
Garrow wrote a lengthy article that included this allegation, along with other details from newly released FBI documents about King’s alleged consensual sexual relations. His article was turned down by several publications until a conservative British publication picked it up. Garrow asserted both a belief in the veracity of the documents and claimed that King’s legacy needed to be reassessed as a result.
The response to Garrow’s essay was unsurprisingly highly critical. It also set off a wide debate about how historians should approach FBI documents and the question of their veracity.
In the film, Gage argues that all of the depictions of King’s sexual behavior are viewed through the eyes of white FBI agents, many of whom clung to racist views about black male sexuality. And in terms of the allegations of being present at a rape (which are very different than claims of consensual sexual relations), Rutgers professor Donna Murch points out that a handwritten note in the FBI file, believed to be from Sullivan, stating King “looked on and laughed,” was information that was simply not possible for the author to know.
During the debate after Garrow’s essay, the most interesting criticism by far came in this publication in an article written by FBI historian Daniel Chard. Chard, unlike many of Garrow’s other critics, read the documents in question. He not only concluded “the ‘evidence’ Garrow cited for his rape accusation is inconclusive”; Chard also criticized Garrow for omitting to mention why the documents in question were even prepared.
King was gearing up for the Poor People’s Campaign, leading the FBI to create this master file of derogatory information, along with assessments about the potential for the Poor People’s Campaign to lead to violence. The story this tells, for Chard, is very much one about the FBI’s ruthless pursuit of King’s proposed Poor People’s Campaign in an attempt to destroy it.
Fascinatingly, when Garrow speaks in the film on the documents, he places them in this very context, arguing that they show the FBI’s response to the proposed Poor People’s Campaign and the threat they believed it posed to the Johnson administration.
At end of the film, he is asked about his responsibilities as a historian toward a figure like King. Shockingly, Garrow seems earnestly perplexed as he grapples with trying to find an answer. As someone who works with FBI surveillance documents, and has tackled thorny issues (though of a far lesser magnitude), I found the scene astonishing to watch.
The Legacy of King and Hoover
Ultimately, MLK/FBI is a testament to the remarkable moral courage of Martin Luther King, Jr. King refused to forsake a close confidante (Levison) at the urging of powerful leaders. And even though he knew the cost of speaking out against the war in Vietnam, he did so anyway.
Near the end of his life, King was preparing to organize a radical action against poverty, knowing full well that challenging the US economic order put him in the crosshairs of not just Southern segregationists, but many of his former “friends” in power.
Today, Martin Luther King Jr has a national holiday named after him and a monument in the nation’s capital. J. Edgar Hoover does not. But Hoover’s name still adorns the FBI’s headquarters. His legacy — one that includes the war he led against our country’s greatest civil rights leader — still lives on at the bureau.