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05 February 2021

Stephen Brown views a film about the FBI’s quest to discredit King

Martin Luther King, Jnr, in the documentary MLK/FBI

Martin Luther King, Jnr, in the documentary MLK/FBI

WHAT did the Revd Dr Martin Luther King, Jnr, and J. Edgar Hoover have in common? Quite a lot, actually, including their Christian faith; King a Baptist, Hoover a Presbyterian. And both had a dream about America. How their core beliefs could lead to such different conclusions is intrinsic to the new documentary MLK/FBI (Cert. 12). It concentrates on Hoover, Head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), going all out to discredit the Civil Rights Movement’s activist.

Far from his being, as introduced at a rally, “the moral leader of our nation”, Dr King is regarded by his nemesis as a hypocritical degenerate, his sexual escapades proof enough. The FBI, which has clandestinely gathered evidence through wire-tapping, paid informants, and bugging, never questions its own ethics. Hoover is so concerned that King poses a threat to America’s need for “a vigorous return to the God of our Fathers” that he fails to notice the beam in his own eye. Strong rumours, later substantiated, circulated about his own sexual peccadilloes.

MLK/FBI claims to be the first film to uncover the extent of the Bureau’s surveillance and harassment of King, based, via the Freedom of Information Act, on newly discovered, declassified files. That may be so, but, for many older viewers, it merely confirms what we already knew. A staggeringly impressive assemblage of documentary footage from the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, the passing of the Civil Rights Acts, and King’s assassination in 1968 is presented and commented on by colleagues such as the Revd Andrew Young.

He worked with King and shared his belief in Gandhi’s non-violent resistance to bring about justice. “We were trusting in the power of God. No other power,” he says. King spoke of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in terms of coming there to overcome hatred with love. This sharply contrasts with the methods of Hoover, whose influence spread far and wide. He mustered reporters to brief against Dr King, looked the other way when his life was endangered, and even sanctioned blackmail in an effort to get King to commit suicide.

Civil-rights protesters in the documentary MLK/FBI

James Comey, who was the FBI’s director under Donald Trump and studied the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr at college, regards all this as the blackest time in the Bureau’s history. Another of the film’s commentators reflects that humans are good at convincing themselves of their own righteousness. Hoover believed in a divinely ordained hierarchy of races and that communism (with which he associated King) was the work of the devil. So no method was out of bounds in defeating those whom he perceived as fostering its ideology.

Few characters emerge as squeaky clean, including King. James Comey (and he should know) believes, he says, that all of us are flawed human beings, but that this should not prevent our acknowledging what is good. MLK/FBI posits two versions of freedom: one perpetuated by fear and deceit and the other dreamed of by visionaries who join hands with others to sing “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last”. The film makes clear which is which.

On various online platforms, DVD, and Blu-ray.

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