FRESH AIR: From the March on Washington in 1963 up until his assassination in 1968, the FBI engaged in an intense campaign to discredit Martin Luther King Jr. and his work. Film director Sam Pollard chronicles those efforts in the new documentary, MLK/FBI.
“The first fear that [FBI director J. Edgar Hoover] had was that King was going to align himself with the Communist Party, which … J. Edgar Hoover was obsessed with destroying,” Pollard says. Pollard’s documentary is based on newly declassified files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, along with restored archival footage. It shows the government’s extensive targeting of King and his associates in the 1960s.
The FBI campaign against King began with wiretaps, but quickly ballooned. When wiretaps revealed that King was having extramarital affairs, the FBI shifted their focus to uncover all evidence of his infidelity by bugging and taping him in his hotel rooms and by paying informants to spy on him. Eventually, the FBI penned and sent King an anonymous letter, along with some of their tapes, suggesting that he should kill himself.
Reading the letter, Pollard was struck by the fact that it was made to sound like it was written by someone close to King. “They were trying to make it sound like it was not only a former associate but a ‘Negro’ who wrote that letter,” he says. “This is supposed to be the nation’s police, that’s supposed to be doing the right thing, and this is the lengths they’ll go to destroy a human being? It’s awful.”
Pollard is an Emmy Award winner and Oscar nominee. His first work as a director was for Eyes on the Prize, a groundbreaking documentary series about the civil rights movement. He’s also edited many of Spike Lee‘s movies, including Jungle Fever, Mo’ Better Blues and When the Levees Broke. MORE