Socialist Worker

The true story of how the FBI smeared Martin Luther King

Using newly revealed documents, MLK/FBI delves into how the US ruling class sought to undermine the Civil Rights movement, writes Ken Olende

Issue No. 2737

Civil Rights protesters in a still from MLK/FBI

Civil Rights protesters in a still from MLK/FBI (Pic: IFC Films)


The US establishment was terrified of the Civil Rights Movement centred around Martin Luther King in the 1950s and 60s.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) under J Edgar Hoover spent years trying to undermine the anti-racists.

The new documentary MLK/FBI goes through its behaviour in forensic detail, in part using newly declassified documents.

The FBI leadership considered King the “most dangerous man in America” and set out to destroy him.

The initial reason the FBI claimed it had to tap King’s phone was his close association with New York ­progressive lawyer Stanley Levison.

Levison had once been a member of the Communist Party. The film accepts the FBI’s defence of national security justification.

Reclaim Martin Luther King the radical
Reclaim Martin Luther King the radical
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But it could emphasise more that while the left opposed racism, the McCarthyite witch hunt branded anyone opposing segregation in the southern states as un-American.

The Civil Rights Movement was a threat because the state was ­institutionally racist.

Hoover is rightly seen as a fanatical right winger.

But as one commentator here points out, his views on the black movement were not out of step with the establishment. He was just the person who got to enact them.

It was the liberal Attorney General Robert Kennedy—president John F Kennedy’s more radical brother—who authorised him to carry out the surveillance.

The bureau tried to build on tensions within the anti-racist movement.

There were some who said the only way forward was to draw more and more people into radical activity. The respectable wing of the movement believed that to gain respect the movement must appear “sane and patriotic”.

After Kennedy’s assassination new president Lyndon B Johnson tried to draw King into the system. He advised King to break all links with Levison and anyone who had Communist connections.

To his credit King responded that given the levels of discrimination it was “amazing that so few” black people turned to communism.

And after King came out against the Vietnam War and started organising the poor, Johnson supported the FBI’s attempts to undermine him.

Once FBI agents discovered King was sleeping with women other than his wife while on the road organising, they expanded their programme to bugging and filming.

The assassination of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton
The assassination of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton
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They hoped that the recordings could be used to discredit him.

This operation was run by the FBI’s disinformation branch, and wildly exaggerated the accusations it made against movement figures.

It sent an anonymous letter with a recording to King’s wife Coretta and other leading members of the movement.

The letter told King, “You know what you have to do,” which his ­colleagues saw as a call on him to kill himself.

The film deserves to be seen and the facts to be known. But I felt the film’s tone lacks the rage that I felt watching a group of powerful racists trying to undermine the fight for civil rights.

It implies that the moderate view was right.

In fact the success of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements came from the fact that they refused to compromise.

MLK/FBI is available to stream from 15 January. Go to mlkfbi.co.uk for details

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