Film & TV

When the FBI Wiretapped Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King Jr. speaks after meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson to discuss civil rights at the White House, December 3, 1963. (Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress/Reuters)
The documentary MLK/FBI is a useful overview of a chilling abuse of federal power.

A combination of racism, anticommunism, and sheer paranoia apparently motivated the head of domestic surveillance to declare, after the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, that Martin Luther King Jr. was “the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of Communism, the Negro and national security.”

We see these words on an FBI memo in the documentary MLK/FBI, which is playing at the New York Film Festival ahead of a planned January theatrical release. The film adds nothing to the known historical record, and it’s occasionally weighed down by interviews with scholars who provide tendentious speculation on the psychology of racism, but for those new to the subject, it’s a useful overview of the FBI’s revolting surveillance policies and their purpose to discredit a great American under the decreasingly tenable suspicion that he was a Communist.

The doc is essentially a cinematic companion to the book The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis, by David Garrow, whose narration holds the film together. Though Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were public allies of King, the FBI during their administrations and its chief, J. Edgar Hoover, ventured beyond his remit in pursuing King after the agency took note that a King-allied lawyer, Stanley Levison, had been a Communist and, as of the late 1950s, still appeared sympathetic to the Communist cause.

When a central element of the FBI’s duty, as it saw it, was to gather information on subversives within the U.S., the Levison tie provided Hoover with the reason, or the excuse, he needed to ask Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy for permission to wiretap King’s phones. Kennedy granted that permission in 1962, and President Kennedy advised King, on a stroll in the Rose Garden of the White House, to break off ties with Levison. King swore that he would, but didn’t, and Hoover used this deception to increase surveillance, going so far as to plant microphones meant to catch King in criminal or at least subversive activity, in part by bugging his lawyer and confidant Clarence Jones, who is also interviewed in the film.

What the FBI found was that King was cheating on his wife, with a number of women, but instead of recognizing that what it was about to do was out of bounds given that marital infidelity isn’t illegal, the FBI eagerly pursued leads in hopes of embarrassing King. Someone even sent King and his wife Coretta a package that included an audio recording of King in flagrante, together with a threatening letter suggesting that King should “know what to do” — presumably to commit suicide. So unashamed was LBJ about the FBI’s actions during his administration that he is seen on film saying, “Now what am I going to do about Martin Luther King with all these reports that are coming in on him all the time? Can’t somebody tell him watch his conduct?” Nobody stopped to think there was anything wrong with the president getting detailed reports on the sex life of a private citizen.

Though even the leading Democrats were virulent foes of communism, King did not do himself any favors when he showed more sympathy than he should have for its aims. He is seen telling a panel of journalists including Dan Rather, “It is amazing that so few Negroes have turned to communism in the light of their desperate plight.” In the early days of the conflict in Vietnam, in August 1965, he spoke out against U.S. involvement, but after Johnson’s allies warned him to back off, he didn’t mention it again for 18 months. When he returned to the subject in 1967, a year before his death, he made it clear that he thought escalation in Vietnam would cost the government dollars that King felt should be spent alleviating black poverty. As Jones puts it, if there was to be a Vietnam War, “how was there going to be any money for the War on Poverty?” King received the worst press coverage of his life, not merely in the bigoted press but in outlets such as the New York Times, for questioning the war. Johnson was angry, and Hoover felt he had even more justification to expand his surveillance operations.

All of this still ought to astonish, and it does, but director Sam Pollard should stick to the topic of what’s in those voluminous FBI files rather than veering off into, for instance, 1920s racism. Nor is a brief interview with James Comey particularly enlightening, and a detour venturing into conspiracy theories about the assassination of King should have been cut. (Should the FBI have known about the murder in advance? Maybe, but there is no evidence that it did.) More information is still to come on this matter: The actual audiotapes of King’s trysts with various women are sealed, but only until 2027. Some think they shouldn’t be released at all.

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