The FBI’s Crusade Against MLK Was Darker Than You Think

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"MLK" Art by Mr. Fish.

Sam Pollard discusses his documentary “MLK / FBI” on J. Edgar Hoover’s sickening surveillance of the civil rights hero. 

“You are done. There is only one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.” That’s the shocking ending to the  infamous letter civil rights hero Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. received  in 1964 essentially urging him to commit suicide.  The letter and accompanying package containing blackmail were sent by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as King quickly caught on. While the full, unredacted letter was finally published by the New York Times in 2014, the audio recordings of an extensive FBI wiretapping operation targeting King have been sealed until 2027. With just a few years left before they come to light, director Sam Pollard did a deep dive into the FBI’s surveillance of MLK under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover in his documentary “ MLK / FBI ,” released by IFC Films earlier this month. 

Image Not Available Sam Pollard, director of ‘MLK/FBI’. Photo courtesy of Simbarashe Cha. An IFC Films Release.(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Pollard, whose films have garnered Peabody and Emmy Awards as well as an Academy Award nomination, joins Robert Scheer on this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence” to discuss this heinous chapter in U.S. history and what it says about America both then and now. Talking about an FBI informant that infiltrated the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), for which MLK served as president, the award-winning film director comes to a harrowing conclusion.

“I know that the notion of informants in [organizations like SCLC] is probably still happening today in the Black Lives Matter movement,” says Pollard. “The FBI has not all of a sudden become clean and upright and upstanding. They still do those kind of shenanigans in any kind of movement that they feel is radical, be it Black movements or white supremacist movements. They still have informants, they're still monitoring, surveilling these organizations.” 

Scheer, who knew MLK in his capacity as a journalist during the civil rights movement, as well as interviewed members of the FBI under Hoover, offers his perspective on the film and the sinister motivations behind FBI surveillance. The “Scheer Intelligence” host argues that one of the drivers behind this operation was likely MLK’s anti-war stance during the Vietnam War, a position that was partly inspired by a  gut-wrenching photo essay of the effects of napalm on Vietnamese children  published in Ramparts Magazine while Scheer was its managing editor.  The connection earned the journalist a place in King’s FBI files as one of the Civil Rights leader’s anti-Vietnam War associates that Hoover loathed. 

Describing the film as a compelling must-see, Scheer also points to one of the most significant questions raised in “MLK / FBI.” 

Image Not Available Sam Pollard’s ‘MLK/FBI’. Photo courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“How could the assassination of Martin Luther King have taken place,” the host asks the film director, “without the government knowing? Without the FBI knowing? They had him under 24/7 surveillance.”

I asked myself the same question,” responds Pollard. 

Listen to the full conversation between Pollard and Scheer as they discuss the implications of that question, as well as address the  highly controversial summaries of the FBI’s MLK surveillance tapes  discovered by King’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, David J. Garrow in 2019. You can also read the full letter from the FBI below: 

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Joshua Scheer