"MLK/FBI" director: "White men in power are frightened of losing their control of America"

Director Sam Pollard spoke to Salon about breaking the FBI myth and how the investigation relates to racism today

By Gary M. Kramer
January 12, 2021 11:19PM (UTC)
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MLK/FBI (IFC Films)

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was called, "the moral leader of our nation." He was instrumental in mobilizing for civil rights with his participation in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, his nonviolent protest in Selma, Ala., and his speech from his March on Washington.

The compelling new documentary "MLK/FBI" recounts these and other key moments of King's legacy. However, filmmaker Sam Pollard ("Atlanta's Missing and Murdered") puts these events in the context of the FBI's investigation of King, and director J. Edgar Hoover's efforts to expose the civil rights leader's private life as a way of humiliating and weakening King. 

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Pollard cannily uses archival footage to tell this fascinating story, and the film features voiceover commentaries by Clarence Jones, an advisor to and speechwriter for King; Andrew Young, who was executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (King was its first President); author David Garrow; historian Beverly Gage; and former FBI director James Comey, among others.  

The surveillance of King is said to be "the darkest part of the bureau's history." Pollard connects the dots as King, deemed "the most dangerous Negro in America," was scrutinized for his connection with Stanley Levison, a Communist Party member, as well as his extramarital affairs, which were to show he was morally unfit. Hoover, who publicly referred to King as "a notorious liar," even mailed a tape to the Kings with advice for King to kill himself. 

"MLK/FBI" explains that the FBI surveillance tapes will be released in 2027, and yet, in this era of Black Lives Matter, it is important to show the impact of speaking out — as King did about topics ranging from racial oppression and the Vietnam War

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Sam Pollard spoke with Salon about his documentary, Dr. King, and the FBI.

How did you find out about these surveillance tapes and approach the topic, assembling clips and building a narrative of the FBI's investigation of King? I liked the comment about looking at social movements from the FBI's perspective, which your film does at times.  

Originally, the producer, Benjamin Hedin, had finished a documentary, "Two Trains Runnin'." He had read David Garrow's book about Martin Luther King and how Hoover and the FBI were surveilling him in the late '50s and early '60s. He said, "This should be our next film." I read the book and completely agreed with him. I knew David Garrow, who was a consultant on "Eyes on the Prize." We met with Garrow in 2017 and spent four hours with him. He gave us the framing of the film — about FBI, Hoover, and why they felt King was one of "the most dangerous Negroes in America." We dug into it from there.

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One of the points raised in your film is, "Should we have this info?" And with the surveillance tapes being released in 2027, there are questions about what we might learn from them. What did you learn about working with declassified files?  

What you learn about declassification is that they are redacted, so you have to surmise what really was there. The other thing that is fascinating from these declassified files — and if these recordings are released in 2027 — is that you hear stuff that is not just considered scandalous about Dr. King's personal life, but you are going to hear the strategies that King, and Ralph Abernathy, and Clarence Jones, and others, had when they went into cities like Birmingham, Albany, and Chicago, and how they were pushing the envelope and breaking down walls of segregation. 

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When we got transcripts, a lot of material that we saw was how the FBI felt that King's scandalous behavior was the thing they felt could destroy him. Their initial motives were to connect him to the Communist Party and Stanley Levison, who was one of his closest confidants. When that didn't stick — and they realized he was having these relationships with other women — they thought that could destroy him. He was a minister and a civil rights leader having liaisons with women who weren't Coretta Scott King. If they passed this info on the press, the press would grab on to it and help destroy King's reputation. But back in the '60s, the press didn't take the bait like the press does today.

How did you want to position King in the film? He always comes across as the smartest man in the room. But in tracing his history, "MLK/FBI" shows things that show him in a conflicted light — his association with Levinson; his remarks about Vietnam, which he was asked to keep silent about after speaking out; and his extramarital affairs, which were meant to discredit him but didn't. I appreciate that your approach is evenhanded, and the film is not hagiographic. Can you discuss that?

I feel as I evolved as a documentarian over the years, when I dig into subjects like King or Sammy Davis, Jr., or anyone, I want to be able to show all aspects. I want to show they are complicated humans with complicated lives. They were multitasking. When I grew up, I saw King as a civil rights leader who was going from city to city trying to break down the walls of segregation. Who knew how complicated his life was? Who knew he was being monitored 24/7 by the FBI? Who knew that he had all these things on his plate that he had to deal with? — which lots of us have to do. It was important to show that. 

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We weren't trying to create him as a saint, but show him as a human being with flaws. I think it was interesting that he was told by the Kennedys to disassociate from Stanley Levinson, and what did King do? He basically lied. He said absolutely. But does he do it? No. He doesn't do it. He continues to have this very close relationship with Levison. He did separate himself from other people in the Communist Party, but not Stanley. He was very shrewd in his own way.

When he's on the talk show and the white lady is asking him if he feels responsible for the riots happening in the city? His response is articulate and right on. He is a very smart, intelligent man. He had to deal with a lot of things. He's trying to direct his troops in Birmingham and Albany and Chicago, and his extramarital relationships, and he's being monitored by Hoover and Sullivan, and the FBI. Then he decides — which was pretty bold really — I'm going to stand up against Vietnam and Lyndon Baines Johnson, who supported civil rights. That took a lot of guts because, not only did he not make Johnson happy, there were people in the civil rights movement who felt he had lost his way. Why are you dealing with Vietnam? You should stick with what our agenda is. His agenda was a human agenda. 

What about how you present the FBI? I can't believe this is, as it's referred to, "the darkest part of the bureau's history."

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Remember James Comey is saying this. He's the ex-FBI director, so for him, that period was the darkest part. You know, and I know, there are other dark parts. We wanted to crack the notion of the mythology of the FBI. I remember growing up in the '60s being a fervent admirer of the FBI. I had seen all these old movies that we used clips from in "MLK/FBI" — "Big Jim McClain" with John Wayne, "Walk a Crooked Mile," "I Was a Communist for the F.B.I.," "The FBI Story," with Jimmy Stewart, and "The F.B.I" show with Efrem Zimbalist Jr. I bought into the notion these were the good guys. J. Edgar Hoover taking down John Dillinger and all that good stuff.

This was an opportunity to dig into that myth and say, "This is who you thought they were, but this is not who they really were." They were an organization to undermine Americans. Anybody who was not going to follow the status quo had to be undermined and destroyed if possible. The FBI and COINTELPRO, their agenda was to infiltrate and disrupt anybody or any organization that they felt was a threat to their notion of American democracy. It was not only Dr. King, it went way back to Marcus Garvey, and then in the 1960s it extended to Nation of Islam and Malcolm X, and the Black Panther Party and Angela Davis. Anyone they thought were not toeing the line, they had to monitor and have informants in these organizations — which I think still exists today. 

Hoover is hellbent on stopping King from mobilizing people and is determined to destroy him. He wiretaps and bugs him too, defaming King in print and even sending letters advising King to kill himself are shocking. Is this how a G-man should behave?
[Laughs] If you go back and define what's a G-man, no. They are supposed to be good upstanding citizens. This is not what I thought when I saw Jimmy Stewart in "The FBI Story" or Jimmy Cagney in "'G' Men." Obviously, they were an intense, underhanded organization, and probably in some ways still are. 

"MLK/FBI" shows how this King was a threat to white men in power with his nonviolent protests and his ability to mobilize a community, especially during a time of social change. What observations do you have about this, and how things have developed in the last 50+ years?

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That attitude about white men in power feeling concerned about losing their power still exists today. It's not King alone; it's the Black Lives Matter movement, and it's other movements. There is still that notion that white men in power are frightened of losing their hold on America, their control of America. There have been changes, obviously — I don't have to sit at the back of the bus anymore if I go down to Mississippi — but as we see daily, Black men are being killed on the street. Breonna Taylor was shot. The notion of white men wanting power, and wanting to stay in power, still exists. The fear of people of color taking over "the notion of America" is still a thing that raises the hackles on many people's necks. That's why [Trump] has had such a presence in America the last four years. It was there underneath when Obama became president, and it burst up. It's amazing that the film, which is a period piece, is still so topical today. The subject matter is still topical today because until America wants to deal with what slavery meant to this country we will keep traveling down this same road.

The film promotes the right to protest, but also states that violence will not succeed in changing a nation. What are your thoughts about fomenting social change, which is what "MLK/FBI" advocates? 

It's an important thing about democracy in terms of freedom of speech. We all have the right to protest and raise our voices to say, "This is wrong. These things need to be changed." What happens is that the anger and frustration has built up to such a degree that peaceful protests can turn to violent reactions. Which is, honestly, quite normal. Peaceful protest is part of what makes this country — when it can be — great. The challenge of freedom of speech is that those we don't want to hear from have the right to talk, too. Peaceful protest is part of the agenda for the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s and up to today. Peaceful protest helps stimulate change, specifically in 1964 and 1965, with the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Had people like Dr. King, and Fred Shuttlesworth, and Dorothy Height, and Fannie Lou Hamer, and Stokely Carmichael had not been out there on the front lines, America would be in a worse place that we think it is today.

"MLK/FBI" in in select theaters and on demand Jan. 15.

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Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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