In 1975, The New York Times ran a previously “unpublished fragment of fiction” by Catch-22 author Joseph Heller on the federal government’s surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. Written in the 1960s, Heller’s lament for King was a brief but powerful swan song for what the United States had been and what it had become by the height of the Cold War. “This tapping and bugging of Martin Luther King was carried out by salaried employees on instructions from their supervisors, who were also salaried government employees, with the knowledge and consent of some very distinguished people in high public office, not one of whom, it seems, has yet been executed for this trespass, or even imprisoned, discharged, demoted, or censured,” Heller said. “This is called national defense.” The disgust felt by Heller was shared by many within the civil rights movement who were convinced that King was being surveilled. The full extent of this surveillance is still only shakily known.
King’s tortured relationship with the FBI is the subject of the new documentary MLK/FBI. Directed by Sam Pollard, it offers a comprehensive overview of how the FBI targeted King during his years of activism. J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI from 1924 to 1972, saw King as a major domestic security threat, treating—as so many other Americans did—the demand for freedom and justice for African Americans as little more than a communist plot to destroy the United States. But as the documentary evolves, it becomes more than just a chronicle of King’s years under the watchful eye of the FBI. It also tells the story of the so-called American century, a century in which left-wing radicals and activists of color, at home and abroad, were harassed, surveilled, and imprisoned under the banner of preserving liberal democracy.
King himself was far from the first African American leader to be closely monitored by the FBI. Hoover’s obsession with breaking the back of American radicalism led him to keep close tabs on members of civil rights, Black nationalist, socialist, and communist organizations from the 1920s until his death in the early 1970s. In 1919, the Bureau of Investigation, the predecessor of the FBI, released Radicalism and Sedition Among the Negroes as Reflected in their Publications, which was a primer on African American resistance to segregation and oppression through arts and letters. The bureau referred to it, according to an excerpt published in The New York Times, as an opportunity to show their “radical opposition to the Government, and to the established rule of law and order.” The document itself names numerous periodicals and organizations, in the process casting a wide net across the entire spectrum of African American thought and cultural activity in the era of the Great War and the Red Summer of 1919. Rival publications such as The Negro World, the organ of Marcus Garvey’s Black nationalist Universal Negro Improvement Association, and A. Philip Randolph’s The Messenger were both cited as examples of the ferment of radical Black thought and cause for the FBI to expand its surveillance efforts.
The surveillance of King was merely the latest example of the FBI’s fears of African American resistance in the United States. Black radicals such as Claudia Jones were chief targets during the Cold War, as their anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist rhetoric became increasingly unpalatable to an American government locked in ideological combat with the Soviet Union and literal warfare with communist regimes in Korea and Indochina. The FBI’s online database of collected materials on Jones and many other Americans is a digitized monument to both the bureau’s desperation to fight what it saw as an internal enemy and the gargantuan odds against which activists and intellectuals fought throughout the 20th century.
MLK/FBI works best when it situates the long-running saga between King and the federal government as part of a larger, and longer, pattern common to much of the “American century.” From Hoover’s battle against the Black freedom struggle to his dogged quest against radical and communist organizations in the United States, he and the FBI were only one flank in a long-standing war against those in the United States—and those outside it too—who were seeking to expand the meanings of freedom and equality in the modern world. Ironically, this was often done under the claims of helping protect liberal democracy, but it often meant the very opposite. The very American leaders proclaiming that the nation was the chief defender of freedom, democracy, and all the central precepts of liberal democracy were the ones routinely flouting them at home.
The documentary is a welcome addition to the growing canon of documentaries, movies, and specials on the life of King that attempt to move away from the public, cuddly version of the man and toward a more nuanced portrayal of him and his life. It engages directly with King’s personal failures, along with the contempt he was held in by many leading Americans. But it also offers a less cuddly version of the United States. Along with films like King in the Wilderness and Citizen King, MLK/FBI reminds us how deeply unpopular King was during his life. Indeed, MLK/FBI’s most startling revelation may be just how popular J. Edgar Hoover was, at least in comparison with a man who now has a national holiday to commemorate his birthday.
The files of King’s life will not be fully unsealed by the FBI until February 2027, and the film ends by asking historians whether the release of those files, which include salacious details of his personal life, will change how he is perceived by the public. But the greater question may be whether this will force the federal government—and the American people—to face the sordid history of surveillance of radical “subversive” groups that, many years later, are lionized for their heroism.