MLK/FBI (2020) – Transcript

Based on newly declassified files, Sam Pollard's resonant film explores the US government's surveillance and harassment of Martin Luther King, Jr.
MLK/FBI (2020) - Poster

The film explores the investigation and harassment of Martin Luther King Jr. by J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, through newly declassified documents. Beverly Gage, David J. Garrow, Andrew Young, Donna Murch, James Comey, Clarence Jones, Charles Knox and Marc Perrusquia also appear in the film.

Much of the documentary utilizes archival footage of MLK between 1955 and 1968, the years of his work as a civil rights activist. It is largely chronological, showing a young MLK from the early sixties until 1968 when he was assassinated. No new information is revealed about his assassination. The last sequence makes the statement that not all FBI documents have been declassified, and that the whole record will be declassified and made available to the public in 2027.

The documentary covers the attempts by Hoover and the FBI to discredit King by collecting recordings and images of his private sexual life with women other than his wife. This is to denigrate his status within the civil rights movement for black people in the United States, which was gaining momentum. There is a stark contrast between the thoroughly white complexion of the FBI and the many crowds of black people assembled around MLK.

* * *

[film reel clicking]

[rising music]

At this time I have the honor to present to you, the moral leader of our nation.

[crowd applauding]

From 1955 to 1968, Martin Luther King led a peaceful 20th century American revolution. In the short span of 13 years, the nonviolent civil rights movement, which he headed, changed the face of American society.

[scanner motor whirring]

[Donna] You know, when you construct a man as a great man, there’s nothing almost more satisfying than also seeing him represented as the opposite.




[persisting drumbeats]

[rising tone]

[Garrow] When the National Archives puts government documents up on the web, in public, one has to confront them. One cannot pretend they don’t exist.

[Beverly] I think one of the difficulties for historians in dealing with really, the fruits of all of this surveillance of King, is whether or not we then become complicit in what the FBI was doing.

[Comey] But you know this about humans. What we’re best at is convincing ourselves of our own righteousness. I think this entire episode represents the darkest part of the Bureau’s history.

[Beverly] Tapes from the hotel rooms, the FBI reports of what was going on, those are pieces of information that we shouldn’t have. Whatever comes out will certainly help us understand him as a person, and that’s kind of our duty, is to understand.

[piano playing]

♪ Lord, don’t move the mountain ♪
♪ Give me strength to climb ♪
♪ Lord, don’t move my stumbling blocks ♪
♪ But lead me all around ♪
♪ Lord, don’t move the mountain ♪
♪ Give me strength to climb ♪
♪ Lord, don’t move my stumbling blocks ♪
♪ But lead me all around ♪
♪ The way may not be easy ♪
♪ You didn’t say, Lord, that it would be ♪
♪ For when our tribulations get too light ♪
♪ We tend to stray from Thee ♪
♪ Have mercy ♪
♪ Please don’t move the mountain ♪
♪ Just give me strength to climb ♪
♪ Lord don’t move my stumbling block ♪
♪ But lead your child all around ♪

[Ronald Reagan] Hello. In the traditional motion picture story, the villains are usually defeated, and the ending is a happy one. I can make no such promise for the picture you’re about to watch. The story isn’t over.

[deep music]

[Narrator] They came from Los Angeles and San Francisco, or about the distance from Moscow to Bombay. They came from Cleveland, from Chicago, or about the distance from Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro. They came from Jackson, Mississippi, from Birmingham, Alabama, or about the distance from Johannesburg to Dar es Salaam. He had been insulted, beaten, jailed, drenched with water, chased by dogs, but he was coming to Washington, he said, to swallow up hatred in love, to overcome violence by peaceful protest.

[King] We are not gonna fight out White brethren with malice, nor are we gonna fight them with any falsified stories, nor are we gonna fight them with hatred, but we are gonna fight them with love. When they hate us, we’re gonna absorb their hatred in love. When they speak against us, we’re gonna speak things of love toward them. We’re not gonna let their hatred turn us around, but we’re gonna love them on every side.

[Young] We had been through the battles in Birmingham. We thought that was the movement. And it was, but after it was over, we realized that what had happened was that the March on Washington took a Black Southern movement and turned it into a national, and international movement for human rights.

[King] One day right there in Alabama, little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little White boys and White girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.

[crowd applauding]

[Beverly] The FBI was most alarmed about King because of his success. And they were particularly concerned that he was this powerful, charismatic figure who had the ability to mobilize people. And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So let freedom ring.

[crowd cheering]

[Donna] When you look at the social movements from the point of view of the FBI, it looks very different. You know, J. Edgar Hoover is famous for saying that he feared the rise of a Black Messiah. Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty. We are free at last.

[crowd applauding]

[Clarence] After Dr. King gave his famous March on Washington speech, Wednesday, August 28th, 1963, in a memo dated the 30th of August, no later than that, the second person in the FBI, Bill Sullivan, sends a urgent memo in which he says, “After the March on Washington, “it’s clear that Martin Luther King Jr., “is the most dangerous Negro in America. “And we have to use every resource at our disposal “to destroy him.”

[crowd chanting]

[Narrator] 1956, 20,000 Blacks walk the streets of Montgomery, Alabama to protest segregation on city buses. The Montgomery bus boycott focuses national attention on its leader, a 27 year old Baptist minister, Martin Luther King, Jr.. [car driving by]

[King] Is this just a test that we’re getting ready to go.

[Interviewer] That’s what we’ve done. Next time we go, it will be for real.

[King] I’m sure that I voice the sentiment of more than 40,000 Negro citizens of Montgomery. We still have the attitude of love, we still have the method of passive resistance, and we are still insisting, emphatically, that violence is self-defeating. That he will lives by the sword, will perish by the sword.

[Young] He let us accept the fact, and made us accept the fact, that what we were doing was insane. He’d say you’ve got to be certifiably insane to think that a bunch of crazy folk like you all, with no money and no guns, no political power, are gonna change this nation. We were trusting in the power of God and only a kind of crazy people of faith would be willing to put their lives on the line and trust in God. In an era of science and technology, ambiguous spiritual phenomena like moral power, you know, it didn’t make sense.

This morning, the long-awaited mandate from the United States Supreme Court came to Montgomery. Segregation in public transportation is both legally and sociologically invalid. In the light of this mandate, the Negro citizens of Montgomery are urged to return to the buses tomorrow morning on a non-segregated basis.

[crowd applauding]

[Garrow] As the boycott wins in the United States Supreme Court come the end of 1956, civil rights activists take a strong interest in this unprecedented community action in the capital of the old Confederacy. Now, one of the most important of those long time civil rights activists who took a real interest in Montgomery was Byard Rustin. And it’s through Rustin that Stanley Levison meets Dr. King.

[soft music]

[Clarence] Stanley David Levison was White, he was Jewish, he was a lawyer who was a certified public accountant, and unsung hero in the civil rights movement as related to Martin Luther King, Jr.. And Dr. King adored him.

[Garrow] From 1955 forward, the FBI takes some degree of interest in local Black protest movements in the South, in Montgomery, in Birmingham, in Nashville, Tennessee. But it’s standard FBI vacuum cleaner information gathering. They’re not particularly focused on Martin Luther King Jr. in those mid and late 1950 years. Even though Stanley Levison and King have a very close personal relationship from 1957 forward, only at the very beginning of 1962, four or five years later, does the FBI tardily realize that Levison has become a very important advisor to King.

[broadcast begins]

[Knox] I always tell people I was strolling down the student union one day and the Bureau had a table there and they were recruiting, so I filled out the application and lo and behold, a week later, I get a phone call. They told me that they will accept me if I pass the physical. On my gosh, 21st birthday, I was driving my car to Washington D. C., took an oath of office and almost quit that day because it was just very surreal. And they were talking about when the bomb goes off, where to go and stuff like that, and I’m thinking, “This is like out of a movie.”

The new FBI will not be the product of one individual. No one man can build it, but one man can pull it down.

[Beverly] There were two big themes that came across in the popular culture that was produced about the FBI. One of those was crime, and the other was the struggle against communism.

Mm hmm.

[Young] Sometime in 1962, Levison got a subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee. And he was really, I don’t wanna say petrified, but he was very concerned.

Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?

I stand on my constitutional rights under the Fifth Amendment.

[persistent drum beats]

[Knox] There was an old saying that once you’re a member of the communist Party, you’re always a member of the Communist Party. That’s what everybody believed.

[Beverly] And it’s pretty clear, in fact, that Stanley Levison was deeply involved in communist politics in the 1950s.

[Knox] He had dropped off the radar, but even after he went totally off the grid, if you will, when the relationship with Dr. King started, they would still get reports from people inside the Communist Party of what Levison was doing. The concern with Dr. King and his connections with Stanley Levison was that he was being influenced by the Communist Party.

[Herlihy] The growing menace of communism arouses the the House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee. Among the well-informed witnesses testifying is J. Edgar Hoover, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Mr. Hoover speaks with authority on the subject.

[Hoover] The Communist Party of the United States is a fifth column if there ever was one. It is far better organized than were the Nazis in occupied countries prior to their capitulation. They are seeking to weaken America. Their goal is the overflow of our government.

[Narrator] To some people, J. Edgar Hoover was a great American, a hero who stood up against crime and communism. To others, he was a figure of profound evil who terrified those he disapproved of with police powers at his command. To everybody, he symbolized the FBI.

[Hoover] The Federal Bureau of Investigations is as close to you as your nearest telephone. It seeks to be your protector in all matters with its jurisdiction. It belongs to you.

[Beverly] J. Edgar Hoover was the head of the FBI for 48 years, from 1924 to 1972. And it’s a really astounding span of time. He went from a period in which Washington was kind of a nothing backwater to a moment when it was really the pinnacle of American power, and he helped build a lot of that.

[mellow music]

[Hoover] The communists have been, still are, and always will be a menace to freedom, to democratic ideal, to the worship of God and to America’s way of life.

[Beverly] From the moment that he entered government, it was his job to figure out who was dangerous to the country, who was too revolutionary, who belonged to a subversive organization. Hoover understood himself really as the guardian of the American way of life. But he had a very particular vision of what that meant. He understood it really as a society of certain kinds of racial and gender hierarchies, a society in which White men were the natural actors, the natural rulers.

[[Hoover] I want to talk to you, fighting men and women, about the battle of the United States.

[Beverly] I think for Hoover, particularly in his early years, communists were in some sense, the ultimate subversives. He saw them as disruptive of a kind of law and order, of a certain kind of social order. He saw them as disruptive on questions of race.

[Hoover] The Workers Communist Party of America puts forward correctly as it’s central slogan, abolition of the whole system of race discrimination, full racial, social and political equality for the Negro people.

[Garrow] Black America was always a particular focus of the FBI, because there was the presumption that Black people are somehow more susceptible to recruitment for a dangerous ideology.

[audience applauding]

We are all familiar with the fact that the communists have been agitating racial problems, racial disunity in our nation for the last several years. That’s the reason that you’ve seen racial agitators like Martin Luther King rise on the scene and get all kinds of national publicity. This was intended. They would like nothing more than to see a civil war in the 1960s in the United States.

[Garrow] The FBI quite understandably asks itself, How come has someone who was once so important in American communism now turned up at the right hand of Martin Luther King Jr.? Within a few weeks, the FBI goes to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy for Kennedy’s approval to begin wiretapping Levison at his home and office in New York.

[Robert F. Kennedy] Among the most familiar words of the founders of the Republic, are those affirming that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed with certain rights of which they can not be deprived. It is a sad shortcoming of our history, that while asserting these high principles of equality, we have never completely lived up to them, nor have these injustices and discriminations been peculiar to any one part of our country.

[Interviewer] How bad is the complaint today? After all, the United States has changed a lot, the Negro’s rights are protected under the law. What exactly, how much has this system changed between then and now?

[King] Well, it has changed a good deal. It is far from what it ought to be, but I can see many, many changes that have taken place over the last few years. And the problem now is to move from token integration to overall integration, where it involves more than just a few students in a school. More than just a few lunch counters open, more than gaining justice in the courts in a few situations, but in every situation.

[Narrator] The next target of the civil rights movement was Birmingham, Alabama. In 1963, the most segregated city in the nation, and for Blacks, a place to die if you tried to be a person.

[Young] Staying calm under fire is necessary for your survival. It’s also necessary for your success, but it’s very hard not to get emotional when people are trying to kill you.

There is no middle ground in this fight, there’s no middle ground in this struggle. You’re either for us, or you’re against us. You’ve heard that said time and time again. Yes my friends, you are either for us, or you are against us.

[audience clapping]

[Young] We will trying to reveal the truth about segregation in the South.

[King] I will not rest until we are able to make this kind of witness in this city, so that the power structure downtown will have to say, we can’t stop this movement, and the only way to deal it is to give these people what we owe them and what their God-given rights and their constitutional rights demand.

[Young] In a very emotional and volatile environment, it was important for us to come off as reasonable, sane and patriotic. ‘Cause we were. We just wanted America to be what America said it was supposed to be.

[King] And they go talking about these little levels of progress that we see here and there and they say, you know, you’ve made great progress. Aren’t you satisfied? No, we are not satisfied.

Well, of course, I feel that the communist movement is behind all of the racial demonstrations in this country, and I have only, I have a statement here that J. Edgar Hoover made in 1958. “The Negro situation is also being exploited “fully and continuously by communists on a national scale. “So as to create unrest, dissension and confusion “in the minds of the American people.”

[Garrow] Both Bobby Kennedy and his brother, the president, were on record as supporters of Dr. King. As supporters of the civil rights movement. But when the FBI begins insisting, that King is susceptible to influence from this dangerous Soviet-connected figure, Robert Kennedy, and in time his brother, the president too, tell him that he needs to distance himself, and really sever his connection with Levison.

The leaders of the march are now coming down the northwest driveway of the white House. They’ll shortly be going in to see the president.

[Clarence] It was June 22nd, 1963. President Kennedy is meeting with several civil rights leaders.

They are being led by Walter Reuther of the UAW, Martin Luther King, James Farmer, Whitney Young of the Urban League.

[Clarence] President Kennedy, he asked Dr. King to stay behind and he and Dr. King went for a walk in the Rose Garden. And Kennedy said, My brother, the Attorney General and J. Edgar Hoover, we have some, we’ve got some bad news. Some people you’re very close to are openly communist. Kennedy said, you know, we’re in this thing together pretty closely, you know? Anything happens to you is gonna reflect very badly on myself and Bobby as Attorney General. You gotta distance yourself. You can’t have anything to do with these people.

Even hearing it from President Kennedy, King is unwilling to believe that these FBI allegations about Levison have any real truth to them.

Dr. King, it’s been alleged that you have been slow to sever your ties with alleged communists in the civil rights movement, even after government officials have warned you against them.

[King] The only person that they identified that had any connection with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was removed.

[Garrow] Dr. King was advised again and again, to avoid getting into any public spat with J. Edgar Hoover.

Well, this places you in the direct opposite position of the Director of the federal Bureau of Investigations, J. Edgar Hoover, who gave some testimony recently to the contrary.

[King] I would hope that the FBI would come out and say something that I think is much more significant. And that is that it is amazing that so few Negroes have turned to communism in the light of their desperate plight. I think it is one of the amazing developments of the 20th century, how loyal the Negro has remained to America, in spite of his long night of oppression and discrimination.

[Garrow] When the FBI begins wiretapping Levison, what they’re hoping to find is evidence that he is still in some manner, a communist agent. The FBI’s theory was disproven.

All right, I’ll tell him. Thank you.

But at the same time, King was less than honest with both Robert Kennedy and John Kennedy, in telling them that he would break off contact with Levison.

[Beverly] The FBI realizes that the relationship continues, ’cause they’re wiretapping. They can see this all playing out. This of course enraged the FBI. Hoover was very upset about this, because he saw it as evidence that just as he had suspected all along, King was lying, he was deceiving, that there was in fact a plot, that these ties were very close. It really only reinforced his sense that there was something bigger going on.

By mid 1963, the FBI was fully aware that King was remaining in touch with Levison, through their mutual friend, Clarence Jones.

[radio broadcast begins] The FBI in Peace and War. Tonight’s story, the fixer.

[theme music]

[Clarence] One day, I come home and my wife says, “I didn’t know you had arranged “for the telephone company to come “and put in new wiring for our phones.” I said, “What are you talking about?” She said, “I don’t know, they just put in “a whole new thing into one of our closets.” I thought about it maybe several hours later and I said, I said “Ann, did they call you?” “Yeah, they called me up. “They said they had talked to you.” And shortly after that, I began to think that, okay, my phone was tapped.

Just a few weeks later in early August of 1963, Dr. King goes to stay at Jones’ home for a few days. Hearing Dr. King on the Jones’ home wiretap is the accidental way by which the FBI first learns that King has this non-monogamous private life. And with those intercepts of King at Clarence Jones’ home, the Bureau’s motivation shift.

[O’Hara] Yes. O’Hara?

[O’Hara] Yes? Gaines. Maybe I got something.

[O’Hara] I’ll be right over. Right.

[Garrow] It’s crystal clear that what the Bureau, by the end of 1963 wants, is to get recordings of King having sexual relations with various girlfriends.

[Host] Here’s the rare opportunity we promised. Here’s one of the great voices in America, Dr. Martin Luther King.

[audience clapping]

[Host] It’s rare, Doctor, that we get a chance to see you in New York. Are we cover, oh yes, with the microphone over there. Do you visit here often?

[King] Oh, I’m in New York almost every other week at least. There’s always something happening in New York, so you can’t avoid coming to New York.

[Host] You’ve discovered it’s a fun city?

[King] Well, I haven’t…

[audience laughs]

[King] I haven’t quite discovered that side of New York. Being a Baptist clergyman, they keep me involved in other areas.

[Host] Right.

[King laughs]

[Host] Your home is actually in Atlanta.

[King] Atlanta, that’s right.

Atlanta, Georgia. Have you lived there all your life?

[King] I was born in Atlanta and went to school in Atlanta through college, and then I went to theological seminary and graduate school in the North.

[Host] Mrs. King, of course lives in Atlanta.

[King] Oh yes, she is from Alabama originally, but, All along, I have supported my husband. Whatever happens to him, it happens to me.

[Host] And children?

[King] Yes, we have four children.

[Host] Ah, What would their ages be, Doctor?

[King] 11, 9, 6 and 4. We have two girls and two boys.

[Host] Do you have a church at this time in Atlanta?

[King] Yes, I’m the co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and my father is pastor.

[Host] Both you and your father.

[King] Well, he makes it clear sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, that he is the pastor.

[Host] Right.

[King] And I’m the co-pastor.

[Dr. King laughs]

[Host] What has the civil rights movement done to the Negro individually?

[King] Well, I think the greatest thing that it has done is that it has given the Negro a new sense of somebodiness. The Negro has straightened his back up, so to speak, and you can’t ride a man’s back unless it’s bent. And I’m not at all pessimistic about the future, because I think the Negro has a kind of determination, and I think there are numerous allies in the White community with the same kind of determination. And with this kind of creative and constructive coalition, we can move forward, even to solve these more difficult problems that I have mentioned.

[band playing]

[Congressman Keating] Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to “Let’s Look at Congress”. Today I have a guest for you that I know will be a great treat to see.

[Hoover] Congressman Keating, I am very happy indeed to have this opportunity of appearing with you on your television program.

[Congressman Keating] And Mr. Hoover, to what extent do you in your work use wiretapping? That’s always a question that people wonder about.

[Hoover] I’m very glad you asked me that question, Congressman Keating. The FBI was authorized to utilize wiretaps only in those cases involving treason, or subversive activities, sabotage and espionage. And I can say to you as of this moment, there are less than 90 wiretaps in the entire United States and territories of our country.

[Congressman Keating] While I’m sure that will disabuse many people’s minds of the wide use of it.

Martin Luther King Jr.: Playboy Interview (1965)

[Beverly] The FBI had sort of interesting set of policies about surveillance. There’d been a lot of public discussion, a lot of court cases around wiretapping. So that’s the telephone. Often, when the FBI was gonna wiretap someone, they had to get the authority of the Attorney General. That was policy that was more or less law.

[Robert Kennedy] My colleagues and I in the Department of Justice are your representatives in the federal courts of the land.

[Garrow] Citing the danger of Levison and King’s apparent dishonesty, Robert Kennedy authorizes for the first time, wiretaps on King himself in Atlanta. The FBI is not really telling Attorney General Kennedy that it has this other agenda.

[Beverly] When the FBI first started conducting overt surveillance of King, it really had something of a national security logic, or at least they presented it that way. The theory was, there were communists within the civil rights movement, the Communist Party was very tied to the Soviet Union, but one of the things that I think we can take from this is how easy it is for that to morph into something else. As those taps, and as that surveillance really began, the FBI found out all sorts of things about King. And very quickly, while they still had some concern with the communist question, it begins to become something that’s much more about King’s personal life, about him as a man, about his sex life, about his family, about his confidants, and about really his private life. It happened really without the approval or authority of anyone outside of the FBI.

[mellow music]

[Garrow] As soon as the wiretap on King’s home begins in late 1963, within weeks, the FBI begins convening meetings to discuss, how can we further exploit all of these extramarital recordings? And that is transparently why Bill Sullivan, as the head of FBI Domestic Intelligence, made the decision that the FBI should expand its electronic surveillance of Dr. King, from just wiretapping, to also using microphones, AKA bugs. Sullivan’s focus was collecting salacious sexual material on King.

[Beverly] And the FBI had a very elaborate and very complicated process for getting those bugs to the right places.

Call Blandon.

[Garrow] Now, in a Willard Hotel type of situation, the FBI and its buddies on the hotel staff could decide in advance, what room is Martin Luther King gonna be assigned to, and have the microphones in place.

[Beverly] They would set up the bugs in his hotel rooms, and usually would take the room either next door or downstairs somewhere, where they could affect listen to the recordings, monitor what was going on, and sometimes, you know, observe physically who was going in and out of the room, ’cause when you have a recording, all you have are a bunch of voices. One of the challenges of those recordings is trying to figure out, particularly in sexual situations with more than a couple of people involved, who’s saying what, who’s doing what? And so there was physical surveillance then involved, to know who was in the room, who appeared to sound what way, and what they might be up to.

[reporter] Down this Avenue of sadness, they bring President John F. Kennedy, martyred hero, to lie in state under the great dome of the Capitol.

[President Johnson] No memorial, oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory, than the earliest possible passage of the Civil Rights Bill for which he fought so long.

[audience applauding]

[Reporter] Congress passes the most sweeping civil rights bill ever to be written into the law. And thus reaffirms the conception of equality for all men, that began with Lincoln and the Civil War, 100 years ago. The Negro won his freedom then, he wins his dignity now. Five hours after the House passes the measure, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is signed at the white House by President Johnson. Before an audience of legislators and civil rights leaders who have labored long and hard for passage of the bill, President Johnson calls for all Americans, to back what he calls, “A turning point in history.” Integration leader, Martin Luther King, receives his pen, a gift he said he would cherish. The Department of Justice will enforce the law if necessary, And G-man chief, J. Edgar Hoover, is present. Now in this summer of 1964, the Civil Rights Bill is the law of the land. In the words of the president, it restricts no one’s freedom, so long as he respects the rights of others.

[phone ringing]

[King] This is an extremely moving moment in my life.

[upbeat music]

[Young] We didn’t know anything about it. We didn’t even know that Dr. King had been nominated until it was announced that he had received the Nobel Prize.

[King] I do not consider this, merely an honor to me personally, but a tribute to the discipline, wise restraint and majestic courage of the millions of gallant Negros and White persons of goodwill who have followed a non-violent course in seeking to establish the reign of justice and the rule of love across this nation of ours.

[Journalist] Do you plan to go personally, do you?

[King] Yes, I definitely plan to go.

[Journalist] The missus can go with you?

[King] Well, I certainly hope so, and I’m sure that we can work out a way for her to get there, being a mother and four children, it’s not easy to get away all the time, but I’m sure that on this occasion, she will be accompanying me.

[Young] I was with him down in Bimini, shortly after the announcement. Bimini didn’t have any phones and there was no television. There was nothing much to do on Bimini, and he was working on his Nobel Prize speech, but all of a sudden, you know, these helicopters started coming in. It was all the national press that had found out where we were. And they came and they told us that Hoover had made the speech to a women’s organization, that Martin Luther King was the world’s most notorious liar. Well, I don’t know what he was lying about.

[King] Well, naturally I was shocked and greatly surprised that Mr. Hoover would make such an unwarranted and vicious accusation. I don’t think Mr. Hoover would have made such a statement if he had not been under a great deal of pressure.

[Interviewer] Do you believe the FBI is doing all it can to resolve civil rights complaints?

[King] While I don’t know all of the inner workings of the FBI, I do know that in cases that do not involve Negros and civil rights, the FBI moves with dispatch, it has the machinery, the know-how. The fact remains that in spite of all of the brutalities we faced in Albany, Georgia, not a single arrest was made, in spite of the fact that four unoffending innocent Negro girls were brutally murdered in a church in Birmingham, Alabama, not a single arrest has been made. And in spite of the fact that the civil rights workers were killed this summer in Mississippi, we haven’t seen a single arrest.

[Beverly] After Hoover denounced Martin Luther King as the most notorious liar in the United States, it produced a real showdown between Hoover and King.

[Hoover] I have no comment to make on that.

[Reporter] How are you feeling, Mr. Hoover?

[Hoover] Excellent.

[Reporter] Is there any response on your part to the suggestions that you resign?

[Hoover] That’s the wish.

[Reporter] Thank you very much, sir.

[Beverly] Hoover and King only met face-to-face once. They agreed to sit down on Hoover’s turf in Hoover’s office, and try to make peace. King showed up. He brought a few of his closest advisers and aides with him. There was no press inside that office when they sat down together. By all accounts, Hoover kinda talked at them for awhile, and then King emerged saying, You know, all good.

[Reporter] Did he apologize to you or in any way indicate regret for what he had said?

[King] Well, I must say that the conference was friendly and that Mr. Hoover talked in a very amiable away, so that, in a very friendly manner. The whole talk was very friendly, and I think he saw it to get over through some of the…

[Reporter] Do you feel your visit here then was a success, or how would you characterize it?

[King] Well, I would say it was a success in the sense that I think we developed new levels of understanding, and as I said to him in the beginning, I felt that this was a basic necessity.

[Reporter] Did he specifically mention his comment about being a liar?

[King] I think we’ll have to end it here.

[Beverly] Ultimately King and Hoover pretended to come to some sort of accord out of that, but it was a big controversy and it was a polarizing controversy.

[Reporter] What do you think of Martin Luther King?

Well sir, I don’t know. I read a lot about him.

Well, I don’t care for him. He’s too bossy. Thinks he’s too smart.

I think he’s a very wonderful man trying to help our race.

Well, you know what Hoover thought about him. I think he’s about 10 times as bad as Hoover said.

[Reporter] Wait, why do you feel that way, sir?

Well, I guess from all the trouble he’s caused in this country, all this rioting and things, I just think he’s about the worst, if he is a human, about the worst in the world.

[Beverly] Probably my favorite public opinion poll, which tells us something about how radically different this moment was, in the aftermath of that showdown, fully 50% of the public sided with J. Edgar Hoover, around 15, 20% sided with Martin Luther King, and a bunch of other people said they weren’t following it and didn’t know, but Hoover was the universally beloved figure, King was the controversial figure, and I think we tend to forget that.

[broadcast beginning]

[Donna] One of the things that’s helped to legitimize the FBI is American popular culture.

[Man Over broadcast] The FBI.

[Donna] I think that we’re constantly battling with popular representations of police, FBI, and federal agents…

NY-20, go ahead.

[Donna] …as our saviors.

[sirens wailing]


[Beverly] The FBI was incredibly good under Hoover at promoting an image of itself, really as the heroes of America.

Hey Mr. Hoover, your G-men sure are good. I’d like to be one when I grow up.

[Hoover] If you work hard, play hard, you’re gonna one.

[Beverly] one of the most important things that Hoover did was to create a Bureau, really in his own image. That meant that he hired a very particular kind of person as an agent. A relatively conservative White man of a certain height and a certain weight. He particularly liked fraternity boys and football players, but there’s a reason that people know when you say that’s a G-man, there’s something that you have in mind. It’s a man in a suit, a White man, probably about six feet tall, buff, conservative, that was what Hoover wanted.


[Moderator] Time Magazine says that Martin Luther King, Jr. has made himself the unchallenged voice of the Negro people. That he has become to millions in the North and in the South, the symbol of the Negro revolution. He is a member of the clergy, he has been called the American Gandhi, he is with us today from Atlanta, Georgia, where he is president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We’ll have a question now from Gay Pauley.

[Gay Pauley] The non-violence always end up with violence, or almost always, Dr. King. What excuse or what reason do you offer for this approach of creating a crisis atmosphere in a community, which leads to bloodshed, as it has in many Southern cities and some Northern?

[King] Well, I think we should see the source of the bloodshed first, and we must understand the real non-violent creed.

[Gay Pauley] Well, doesn’t this crisis atmosphere though, create or endanger the Negro’s cause by creating among the Whites a resentment or feeling that the Negro is moving too rapidly, asking too much so suddenly? Does this worry you that this atmosphere could be created, or is?

[King] Well, I think this is a temporary response in any social revolution.

[Gay Pauley] Or doesn’t it hurt your cause?

[King] I don’t think so. Ultimately I think it helps it in the final analysis. The only way people can grapple with their prejudices is to admit that they have them. And so often people don’t realize they have them, and so often people don’t realize or honestly acknowledge that that is a problem. And it is necessary, in the nonviolent movement, to bring the issue to the surface so that people are forced to deal with it, and to deal with their conscience on the issue.

♪ Oh, this little light of mine ♪
♪ I’m gonna let it shine ♪
♪ Oh, this little light of mine ♪
♪ I’m gonna let it shine ♪
♪ Oh, this little light of mine ♪
♪ I’m gonna let it shine ♪
♪ Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine ♪
♪ Oh, we have the light of freedom ♪
♪ We’re gonna let it shine ♪
♪ Oh, we have the light of freedom ♪
♪ We’re gonna let it shine ♪
♪ Oh, we have the light of freedom ♪
♪ We’re gonna let it shine ♪
♪ Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine ♪
♪ Oh, God gave to us ♪
♪ We’re gonna let it shine ♪
♪ Oh, God gave to us ♪
♪ We’re gonna let it shine ♪
♪ Oh, God gave to us ♪
♪ We’re gonna let it shine ♪
♪ Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine ♪

I call upon you.

[audience clapping]

I have the great honor on behalf of the Nobel Committee, to hand over to you the insignia of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Diploma and the gold medal.

[King] Thank you very much. Thank you very much.


[David Garrow] Now, this is the greatest honor that King has received. And the fact that King is now being internationally celebrated as a moral leader, deeply angers and offends both Hoover and Sullivan.

[Young] He was upset that this young Black man, who I think at that time was 34, 35, is being recognized around the world as a pioneer in peace and justice. Hoover was being ignored, and he blamed us.

[LBJ] Now, what am I gonna do about Martin Luther King with all these reports that are coming in on him all the time? And there’s somebody– can somebody tell him, uh, watch his conduct?

[Man talking over phone]Lord… looks to me like he’s too far gone. Well, a lot of it, as far as his relationships with girls is concerned, there’s been many… [indistinct] Maybe… maybe they’re getting the Nobel Prize… [indistinct] Of Course, Hoover loves that, he doesn’t like King.

[LBJ] Now, they’re pressing me to attend a dinner in his honor in New York. I can’t do that, can I?

[Man] I would think you could, but I wouldn’t advise you to. I’d find some other reason why you can’t.

[Garrow] The FBI is frustrated that even though they’ve successfully caught King in 15 or more hotel rooms, and they’ve distributed this behind the scenes to church leaders, to reporters, nothing’s publicly happened. That despite all of the hundreds and hundreds of man hours that they’ve put into this, King has not been personally destroyed.

[Beverly] For Hoover, you know, a lot of this is framed as a matter of hypocrisy. Here’s the sainted minister presenting himself as this great moral authority, but we actually know he’s this sick, dirty, perverted creature. And you see that kind of language all over FBI documents.

[Knox] The FBI surveillance of Dr. King, it was special in the fact that whatever city he went to, it was all hands on deck. Everything else stopped. Hoover was obsessed with Martin Luther King and his activities. From what I heard, there were some photographs, whoever was in them, that just kind of fed that mindset of Hoover but this was a dangerous man and they need to be removed.

[Garrow] Now, this is not the way that Sullivan or Hoover themselves would have said it, but there was a radicalism to King’s sexuality that they viewed as offensive.

[Beverly] For Hoover in particular, he himself tried to be a very tightly controlled person when it came to matters of his personal life and his sexuality and the way that he policed the boundaries of that. Now that’s a complicated story in its own right.

[Garrow] Hoover, and particularly Bill Sullivan, the head of Domestic Intelligence, paternalistically thought that Martin Luther King Jr. was morally unfit to be a leader of Black America.

[Beverly] I think for Hoover as well, who was really raised in a Southern segregationist tradition, a set of really outsized fears about Black men’s sexuality, about Black men as rapists, as people who don’t know how to control their sexual appetites, right? They’re looking at what they’re finding out about King and sort of seeing it through that lens and narrating it through that kind of language.

Dr. Martin Luther King can call himself a Christian, and he mixes White women, colored women and men and women all together.

[Donna] I think that this interest in the sexual life of King, this is just inseparable from the history of racial violence in the United States.

Now, can you look in these stripes of red on this flag, knowing very well that your forefathers, yes, yours, not mine, yours, all of them, that that stripe represents that blood that they spilled on this soil, American soil, something that you have never had to do to give you this God-given right of racial character and a inheritance.

[audience claps]

[Donna] When we think about the U.S. as it emerges from the Civil War, you have this idea that formerly enslaved people should be integrated into the body politic. And there is an enormous pushback, not only from supporters of the Confederacy, but the problem of race is a national problem as well. One of the core justifications for preventing Black male suffrage was deviance. That Black people are deviant. That Black men in the state house are a threat to White women. And it’s this representation of Black political aspiration as sexual threat. And unfortunately, that’s an ever recurring theme. This mobilization of black sexuality as a justification for murder, for exclusion, for discrimination and for incarceration. This is a fabric of American history.

[Beverly] This was a way that you could bring down a very successful, influential Black civil rights leader, and contain the movement by destroying its figurehead. And so it’s at that moment that the FBI decide that they’re really gonna operationalize, and go quite overtly after King.

[King] When you stand up against the forces of evil, you will be persecuted for righteousness’ sake. In the words of the spiritual, you will be buked and scorned. You will be talked about, you will be lied on, you will be persecuted in many ways, you will be thrown again, maybe into narrowed and frustrating jail cells. I can’t promise you that you can avoid this.

[Clarence] We used to have these conference calls at least three times a week late at night. 10 or 11 o’clock at night. And I was convinced then, the FBI was tapping our phones. I just said, “I’m sure they’re doing it.” Dr. King became so annoyed at me for repeatedly saying this. “Clarence,” he said, “Don’t you know the FBI “has got more important and better things to do “than to be wiretapping our phones?” But there did come a day when he became more suspicious. And then there came a day, certain. When the FBI mailed the tape of Dr. King with other women, mailed it to him and to Coretta, with an advice that he should go kill himself, that’s when he knew.

[Beverly] I think there’ve always been a couple of really important tensions within the FBI. One is being a very rule-bound organization, a very professional organization, an organization very attuned to jurisdiction and law, and then being an organization that was almost law-less.

[Garrow] The Bureau has all of these hotel room recordings, and so Sullivan has his underlings compose a greatest hits compendium tape, and then sits down on his own typewriter, to draft an anonymous threatening letter to King.

[Beverly] This is a reportedly from an admirer within the movement who has found out about King’s sexual indiscretions, feels betrayed by it, and writes this full page, really scurrilous letter denouncing King as a beast and a pervert, and a monster, a hypocrite, and in fact saying, “I know what you’ve done.”

[Garrow] It’s clearly a very poor quality attempt of someone who is sort of culturally clueless to pass as Black.

[Beverly] They put this package together and send it off, saying, “King, you know what you have to do,” and giving him a deadline by which he needs to do it. Many people have interpreted that to be that you need to kill yourself. And this is one of the ways that King and his confidants who saw this letter interpreted it. There’s some ambiguity there, but it is one of the most notorious and dirty tricks that the FBI ever, ever conducted in the 1960s.

[Interviewer] Have you read that letter?

[Comey] Yes, I have. I was sick to my stomach, actually. I mean, I didn’t throw up, but I felt ill reading it, and that’s what I mean when I say, I think this entire episode represents the darkest part of the Bureau’s history.

[Young] The package was sent to the office. I think it was mailed to us from somewhere in Florida. We never saw it. It was put in a box, and sent to Coretta. So she opened it up and she played it, and then she called the office and said, “Look, somebody has sent a tape in here “trying to get Martin to kill himself. “And they have a recording of some man and woman in the bed.” I didn’t even want to hear it, you know? This was designed to upset him. We always assume that Hoover was behind it. My philosophy about the movement is that unless I saw something with my own eyes, you really have to be careful what you believe.

[choir singing]

♪ I told you that I believe ♪
♪ That I’ll be free ♪
♪ Hallelujah freedom, Hallelujah freedom ♪
♪ Hallelujah freedom ♪

[Coretta] I’m here because I want you to know that I’m with you and that I am with my husband.

[Coretta] As the wife a major symbol of the civil rights movement, I think I can say that, without boasting, I think it’s a fact, I have had the privilege of being perhaps closer to him than anybody else, and perhaps that maybe I understand him better than anyone else. And therefore, I think I have a pretty good understanding of the whole struggle.

[slow music]

[Garrow] In the immediate wake of Mrs. King, Dr. King and King’s closest aides listening to the anonymous, embarrassing tape recording from the FBI, Dr. King undergoes a real emotional crisis. And it’s an emotional crisis that the FBI is listening in on, thanks to its telephone wiretaps. Dr. King is desperately afraid that his sex life is going to be exposed in raw detail to the American public. Now, his life is so busy on a day-to-day basis in early 1965, that he’s not able to worry about this 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He’s distracted from his worries a good portion of the time. But the emotional impact on King of what the FBI was doing to him, cannot be gainsaid. King was clearly in very serious emotional turmoil or emotional fear, and even as a few weeks went by and nothing happened, King always has that worry in the back of his mind, that at some point the FBI is going to get lucky, and some journalist, some magazine is going to print all of this.

[Reporter] This is Highway number 80, Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. You can fly it in a matter of minutes. You can drive it in less than an hour, or you can walk it in five days, which is what this is all about.

[Young] We knew that the FBI was following closely. Almost everywhere we went, we identified the agents. We assumed that the rooms were bugged, we knew that the telephones were tapped. Dick Gregory said that, if you’re Black and not slightly paranoid, you’re really sick. And we were slightly paranoid, but we never let that paranoia interfere with what we were trying to do.

[King] We’ve lived with slavery and segregation 345 years. We’ve waited a long time for freedom. Now is the time. Make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

[President Lyndon Johnson] Today is a triumph for freedom, as huge as any victory that’s ever been won on any battlefield.


[Garrow] The triumphal passage of the Voting Rights Act really highlights what a close political alliance has developed between Martin Luther King and President Lyndon Johnson’s administration.

Okay, hold on, please.

[King] Hello? Hello?

[Johnson] Yes, Dr. King.

[King] Yeah, Mr. President. How are you today?

[Johnson] Well, I’m doing pretty good. But now you better get your thinking cap on, on this conference, because we’re gonna have to rush it. We don’t wanna rush it too much. We wanna have plenty of preliminary work on the panels and things–

[King] Uh-huh.

[Johnson] –but you better– you can see here that, uh, my Howard University speech wasn’t any too early.

[King] That’s right, that’s right. You said– you said it right there, that’s right.

[Johnson] But you put a little of that stuff into your thing– refer to that Howard University speech. Nobody ever publicized that.

[King] Almost every speech I’ve made, because, uh, I think it’s the best statement and analysis of the problem I’ve seen anywhere, certainly no president has ever said it like that before.

[Johnson] But if you got any suggestions or recommendations, why, I’m just as close as the telephone if you got enough money to pay it, you haven’t money, call Collect.

[King] [laughs] All right.

[Johnson] Goodbye.

[helicopter blades whirring]

[guns firing]

[Reporter] Increasingly now, Americans are functioning directly in the fight for freedom on this far forlorn corner of the earth. The risks are real.

[Johnson] We intend to convince the communists that we cannot be defeated by force of arms or by superior power. They’re not easily convinced.

[Garrow] When Martin Luther King Jr. first speaks out publicly against the Vietnam war in August, 1965, he quite quickly is forced back into line by hostile criticism directed at him by democratic allies of President Johnson.

We will not be forced out of South Vietnam.

[Garrow] And so King then remains silent about Vietnam, for almost 18 months.

During our tour in the Republic of Vietnam, we have all seen what communism can do to a struggling nation in our world community.

[Garrow] When King is on his way to Jamaica in early 1967, and while waiting for a flight, he buys some magazines in an airport gift shop. And in an issue of Ramparts magazine, he sees a whole series of photos about the impact of US Air Force napalm bombing on Vietnamese civilians.

[somber music]

Non-violence for King was not simply a civil rights protest tactic. King believed that nonviolence was a Christian ethic that should be applied around the world, not just by Black demonstrators.

[King] Let us pray.

[Garrow] Only in early 1967 does King’s conscience begin to so trouble him about his prolonged silence, that he forces himself to go public once again, knowing full well that in doing so, it will break his political alliance with Lyndon Johnson, and bring down very widespread political criticism on his head.

[King] And of course, it’s always good to come back to Riverside.

[congregation applauding]

[Knox] The worst press that Martin Luther King received, I think in his lifetime, was exactly one year before his assassination.

[King] I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight, because my conscience leaves me no other choice. A time comes when silence is betrayal. And that time has come for us, in relation to Vietnam.

[Clarence] He reminded President Johnson, he could count. How was there gonna be any money for the war on poverty when all the money that was being set aside for the war on poverty was being spent to build bombs?

[King] You know, America is a rich nation. The richest nation on the face of earth. Now, you know what’s wrong? Our national priorities are mixed up. And I’m afraid the national administration of our country is more concerned about winning the war in Vietnam than winning the war against poverty right here in the United States.


[Young] He was attacked from coast to coast, simply from describing the world as it really is. And this was not the racist Southern press. This was the New York Times and the Washington Post and the LA Times, and you know? I mean, everybody blasted him for having an opinion.

[Woman] King went to communist training school, and I don’t want anything to do with communists.

[Reporter] Are you sure of this?

[Woman] Look right here.

[Reporter] Is that your only proof?

[Woman] We have proof, and we are satisfied that it’s true proof.

[Clarence] When he publicly spoke out against the war, the persons he had known and been close to for years, turned against him. And we don’t see any reason for downgrading civil rights and elevating the peace movement above it, especially the indignities our people are suffering. The main show for us is right here, it’s civil rights.

[Clarence] Yeah, he was hurting and depressed, and he is, you know, the pressure of the home and his marriage and so forth. You know, it was getting to him.

[Young] It wasn’t that he was right or wrong. He didn’t have any business having an opinion. [laughs] see? He realized how sick this country was, and he felt that he couldn’t slow down and he had the push on regardless.

[King] I weighed the criticisms that I would get. I thought about even the fact that some Negroes wouldn’t understand, and some respectable Negro leaders who are more concerned about being invited to the White House than invited to the calls of justice would be against me.

[audience clapping]

[Garrow] In the wake of Dr. King’s Riverside Church speech, Lyndon Johnson’s White House, very explicitly identifies King as a major threat to the president’s policies.

[King] I’m convinced that it will lead to widespread discontent and disenchantment with administration if there isn’t a change in the policy, and an all out effort to de-escalate the war and bring an end to it.

[chanting, shouts]

[Protester] Stick with civil rights! Leave the war to the generals, back to Hanoi!

[Garrow] Now, Lyndon Johnson’s White House had always been privy to the FBI’s sexual surveillance of Dr. King. But now, Lyndon Johnson comes to view Martin Luther King as an enemy. And the FBI is eager to strengthen its own relationship with president Johnson, by jumping on this anti-King bandwagon with greater fervor.

[Hoover] I just got word that Martin Luther King will give a press conference at 11 o’clock this morning in Atlanta. King has, uh, uh, was told by Levison, who is his principal advisor and who is a secret communist, that he has more to gain nationally by agreeing with the violence that is coming out against it. That’s the substance of information. We’ve got that highly confidentially over the tacticals, and I’ll have for you tomorrow that memorandum you want on all the riots in the country.

[Johnson] That’s right. And I want you to keep your men busy to find a central connection, but I wouldn’t be a damn bit surprised that if this poverty group here is not stirring up some of this.

[Hoover] We’ll dig into that very thoroughly.

[Johnson] Okay.

[Hoover] Fine, thank you, Mr. President.

[Donna] So many resources are mobilized against suppressing dissent in the U. S. The FBI has done extensive surveillance of all kinds of Black organizations.

Don’t be afraid. Don’t be ashamed. We want Black power.

[crowd] Black power!

We want Black power.

[crowd] Black power!

We want Black power.

[crowd] Black power!

We want Black power.

[Donna] When you look at the social movements from the point of view of these law enforcement agencies, it looks very different.

[H. Rap Brown] We stand on the eve of a Black revolution, brothers. Masses of our people are in the streets. They’re fighting tit-for-tat, tooth for tooth, an eye for an eye and a life for a life. The rebellions that we see are merely dress rehearsals for the revolution that’s to come. We better get ourselves some guns and prepare ourselves.

[Donna] The Bureau was of course anticommunist, but I’d say it’s most consistent campaigns were against Black people. Whether it’s William Sullivan or J. Edgar Hoover, the policy was consistent. They saw African Americans as, you know, J. Edgar Hoover has said about the Black Panther Party, that they were the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States.

[Hoover] The use of informants has existed for years and years by law enforcement agencies. You even find reference to it in the Bible. In the time of Moses. Certainly you cannot expect to be able to penetrate the secret, conspiratorial organizations without using secret agents.

[Comey] There were FBI informants in most domestic groups in the United States. That was the only way you can investigate them, especially if they were Black organizations. You know, we didn’t have that many Black agents back then, so you had to have individuals inside that organization to get inside information. It was just, you had to.

[Donna] The general strategy of intelligence services is that they use surveillance in order to figure out how to break apart these organizations. So it’s not just surveillance for surveillance sake. It is to observe the organizations to figure out what their points of vulnerability are, and then purposely insert people into those conflicts.

[Beverly] It’s in the late 1950s that the FBI founds this super secret program, COINTELPRO, counter-intelligence program, that allows them not just to conduct surveillance, but to begin to disrupt the organizations quite explicitly. Spread rumors within the organization, foment violence, et cetera.

[Marc] You have to be astonished just at the number of sources that they had. When you look through these FBI reports, I mean, they’ve got scores and scores of people. Ernest Withers was probably the most successful civil rights photographer you never heard of. He was very much a movement insider and covered the civil rights movement from its very dawn. He shot a very monumental picture of Dr. King on the bus at the end of the Montgomery bus boycott. You know, a very radical, revolutionary moment in American history, and Ernest Withers was right there in the middle of it. Ernest had a completely different side to him that no one knew about, and that was that he doubled as an informant for the FBI for as many as 18 years.

[Young] We had an informant in our office.

[Interviewer] James Harrison?

[Young] I’m not calling the names.

[Garrow] Jim Harrison is a paid FBI informant in SCLC’s office sitting a few yards from Martin Luther King, Jr.. Having someone like Harrison, would allow for a very efficient daily reporting on where’s King gonna be traveling, what’s he gonna be doing? What are people in the office concerned about?

[Clarence] I did not know that he was in fact, an FBI informant. I did not know in fact, but I believed that he was. And I tried to counsel Martin, to don’t let him know more than he needs to know.

[Garrow] We now know that Harrison had worked as an informant for the FBI in two other cities. It seems beyond a possible coincidence that he moves to Atlanta and volunteers to work at SCLC without some suggestion or instruction from the FBI.

[Marc] It’s not really that surprising, knowing now what we know about what the FBI was doing. Anybody who was to the left of mainstream, anyone who supported the anti-war movement, anyone who got what they considered militant in civil rights was deemed a subversive. And they were keeping files on them. They were running a surveillance state.

[Reporter] This is where it began, the rural South. And here where it began, for the Negro, the problem remains. There’s no ghetto here, just poverty. The worst kind of poverty. The kind of poverty that makes you wonder, can this be the United States of America, the richest country in the world in the year 1967? It is not just material poverty, there is also a poverty of the spirit.

What is it about the Negro? I mean, every other group that came as an immigrant somehow, not easily, but somehow got around it. Is it just the fact that the Negroes are Black?

[King] The fact is that the Negro was a slave in this country for 244 years. That led to the thingification of the Negro. So he was not looked upon as a person, he was not looked upon as a human being with the same status and worth as other human beings. And it seems to me that White America must see that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil. And so emancipation for the Negro was really freedom to hunger. It was freedom to the winds and rains of heaven. It was freedom without food, deed, a land to cultivate, and therefore it was freedom and famine at the same time. And when White Americans tell the Negro to lift themselves by his own bootstraps, they don’t look over the legacy of slavery and segregation. I believe we ought to do all we can, and seek to lift ourselves by our own bootstraps, but it’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.

[Garrow] King is deeply pessimistic that America will ever undertake the pursuit of real equality for Black people.

[King] Ladies and gentlemen of the press, I’m gonna read an opening statement.

[Garrow] And that leads him to announce the idea of holding a poor people’s campaign in Washington, in the spring of 1968.

[King] The Southern Christian Leadership Conference will lead waves of the nation’s poor and disinherited to Washington D. C. next spring do demand redress of grievances by the United States government. We will go there, we will demand to be heard, and we will stay until America responds.

[Beverly] The FBI was deeply alarmed by these plans. For Hoover, you know, this was his home turf. But they’re also very concerned about the kind of conflict that might emerge out of this. They thought it could be a significant threat to the national Capitol in particular.

[King] Powerful poor people, well really means having the ability, the togetherness, the assertiveness and the aggressiveness to make the power structure of this nation say, yes, when they may be desirous of saying, no. Black people, Mexican Americans, American Indians, Puerto Ricans, Appalachian Whites, all working together to solve the problem of poverty.

[Garrow] It bears emphasis that William Sullivan, the head of American Domestic Intelligence, in late March of 1968, begins revising and expanding the FBI’s primary document to indict Dr. King. And chooses to add for the first time, the rape participation allegation to his revision of this document.

[Beverly] It’s unclear how much we’re ever going to know about any particular incident in King’s sexual history, particularly the most explosive allegation that’s been made.

[Donna] Handwritten annotations on this document, alleged that King was present at the rape of a black female parishioner by a Baltimore minister, and that he “Looked on and laughed.” I have many, many questions about this. It’s supposed to be an audio tape, but concluded within this document, is the assertion that King looked on, which I thought was strange. That in itself to me was a huge red flag.

[Garrow] The agents who were listening in in live time, in a room right next door to where this was taking place, did nothing. Their focus was on gaining embarrassing material.

[Beverly] We are gonna have to not assume that everything that’s said in those documents is true. I think also not assume that everything that’s said in those documents is false. And I also think that we have to understand that FBI agents were making their own very subjective judgements about what’s actually happening.

[Donna] One of the things I was really struck by this is how much it adheres to J. Edgar Hoover and William C. Sullivan and the FBI’s representations of King. The agents were really rewarded for finding this kind of material that would undermine the civil rights movement and other Black organizations. And so in some ways, it provides this grand narrative that has this allegedly big revelation in the context of this larger life of misconduct.

[Garrow] Sullivan is updating and expanding this document, because of the political threat to the Johnson administration that this Poor People’s Campaign represents. All of a sudden, Sullivan’s work on this revision halts. And it halts because Dr. King is murdered.

[Beverly] The night before his assassination, King gave one of the most remarkable speeches of his whole career. One of the themes was the idea that protest itself was really in peril. You were seeing crackdowns all across the country increasing concerns about violence, and he was really making a claim that in Memphis, it wasn’t just the rights of workers, it wasn’t just racial justice that was on the line, but it was also the right to speech, the right to protest, the First Amendment itself.

[King] If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.

[audience applauding]

[Reporter] Good evening. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, 39 years old, and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and the leader of the nonviolent civil rights movement in the United States was assassinated in Memphis tonight. A sniper’s bullet cut down Dr. King, as he stood on a hotel balcony in Memphis.

[Woman] The special bulletin phrased on the television that Dr. King had been shot. And I just stood there, you know, a long time. And then little while later, they said Dr. King was dead. And I was angry. There was a whole lot of other people who were angry.

[Man] We are very upset today, because we’ve lost in our generation, somebody like a father. In our lifetimes, people 25 and 26, he’s the first major man we ever saw who started a bus ride and everything like that. And today, many people are out here on the street wondering which way they’re going to turn, because we don’t know where we’re going to go. Do we go to the right, do we go to the left? We’re not sure today.

[Beverly] I don’t think the FBI had a deep interest in protecting King. In fact, there are many moments in which the FBI refused to act in a kind of bodyguard capacity or even a warning capacity when King was under threat. In the end, after Hoover felt that he was under enormous pressure, the FBI did conduct a pretty decent, wide-ranging, incredibly labor intensive investigation to find someone who was involved in King’s assassination. The man named as James Earl Ray was arrested at quarter past 11 this morning by two Scotland Yard detectives as he passed through the British immigration offices for a flight to Brussels. An announcement by the American FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, said the man was fully armed with a loaded pistol, and he carried two Canadian passports and a false name.

[Beverly] I think once they understood that the FBI’s investigative reputation was gonna be at stake in this case, they poured enormous resources to try and to bring that case home.

[Reporter] Ray’s life and civil rights were being guarded more closely than those of Martin Luther King, whom Ray is accused of murdering.

I was amazed that with the surveillance by the FBI, 24/7 around Dr. King and the SCLC, that they wouldn’t be aware of James Earl Ray and the Lorraine Motel. I don’t think James Earl Ray had anything to do with Dr. King’s assassination. So I can’t really comment on that.

[Knox] The assassination of King and the fact that we were doing surveillance that day when he was shot, it’s always been in the back of your mind going, you know, did we not know this? Could we not prevent this? I didn’t hear anything that would indicate that headquarters knew and chose not to do anything. I’d never saw that, I never heard that, but it was a question everybody had, because it was a legitimate question. You know, why did we not intercede if we were there?

[Young] This was an emotional, frustrated, outraged nation. Other people were trying to incite to violence. We always said that the only thing that could defeat us was violence.

♪ There’ll be singing ♪
♪ There’ll be singing ♪

And I think that’s still true in this country. I don’t think, violence will not succeed in changing this nation.

♪ And before I’ll be a slave ♪

Whether it’s White violence or Black violence, or any other color violence.

♪ And go home to my lord ♪
♪ And be free ♪
♪ Oh Freedom ♪
♪ Oh freedom ♪
♪ Oh freedom over me ♪

[Young] Dr. King used to laugh and joke about his death. He said, “Look, you’re gonna die. “Death is the ultimate democracy. “Everybody’s got to die and you don’t have anything to say “about when you die, where you die. “Your own choice is, “what is it you give your life for?”

[soft music]



[Interviewer] Here’s my first question to you. What do you see your responsibility as a historian when you’re dealing with someone like Martin Luther King, what’s your responsibility?

[Garrow] Hmm. It varies over time.

[soft music]

[Beverly] So, when these tapes come out in 2027, I think it’s gonna be very interesting to see what the reaction is. I don’t know that it will create a fundamental re-understanding of King as a political figure, but I do think that it will probably give us a slightly more complicated sense of him as a human being.

[Young] There’s always been this unresolved tension in who we are and who we say we are, and who we wanna be. But there was always this emotional enthusiasm that we could change the world.

[soft music]

Clarence Jones: Did he have sexual relationships with women other than his married wife? Yes, he did. I can’t change that. That’s a matter of factual history. Does that make him, in my mind, less of an historic civil leader? No, it does not.

[Charles Knox] I just don’t think that the tapes should see the light of day. As I said, they would serve no purpose whatsoever. And I don’t see anything good that can come about it. I see bad things that could come about it.

[James Comey] I don’t know enough about what might be in the tapes to react, except I’d say this: I’ve never met a perfect human. There are no perfect humans. There’s not one speaking to you now, and so I would hope that no matter what is revealed, and maybe there’ll be nothing new revealed about Dr. King, people are able to understand that people are complex, and it doesn’t detract from what a person did for the good.

[Gage] I think it’s easy for us to look back at what the FBI was doing during Hoover’s years and be outraged by it, and rightly so, but I also think there’s an image of J. Edgar Hoover as being some sort of rogue actor, behind the scenes, and being kind of out of step with the American mainstream. But the truth is that a lot of this wasn’t particularly secret. A lot of people understood what the FBI was up to, and in fact, they supported it.

[Garrow] The FBI was not a renegade agency. It was fundamentally a part, a core part of the existing mainstream American political order.

[Donna Murch] I don’t know what’s in the 2027 releases, but I don’t think that this will impact the assessment of Dr. King’s legacy. The 1960s, the post-war years are a period of real transformation. One thing that’s really important is that we acknowledge that Black people have only truly had citizen rights for the last 50 plus years. It’s so recent. Looking at the FBI campaigns against King, the Black Panther Party, and many other people, I think there’s a core component to this that really is structural and functional. People hold these attitudes, and we focus on J. Edgar Hoover’s own particular history and person, but I think that these are attitudes that have been core to how the racial order operates in the U.S. What helped motivate these campaigns was the real fear that Black people could undermine the way the country wanted to see itself. And this manifested itself, not only in the targeting of leaders and people that were visible, but of ordinary people. So these core fear and aggressions towards African-Americans, I think has a lot to do with White people’s own conception of themselves, and the danger of Black people forcing a reckoning with the violence of the American past.

[soft music ends]

♪ Oh freedom, oh freedom ♪
♪ Oh freedom over me ♪
♪ And before I’d be a slave ♪
♪ I’ll be buried in my grave ♪
♪ And go home to my Lord ♪
♪ And be free ♪

♪ Everybody! ♪

♪ Oh freedom ♪
♪ Oh freedom ♪

♪ Sing it, sisters ♪

♪ Oh freedom over me ♪
♪ And before I’d be a slave ♪

[uplifting instrumental music]


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