How the FBI Tried to Drive Martin Luther King to Suicide
A new documentary offers an anatomy of the motivations of J. Edgar Hoover’s unhinged efforts to smear MLK, including through interviews with King’s confidants.
Last year, an explosive trove of alleged information about the private life of Martin Luther King, Jr. became available for the first time in written FBI reports and surveillance summaries.
Quietly uploaded to the National Archives’ website and buried among tens of thousands of government documents, the reports revealed the crazed lengths to which J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI went to surveil, harass, and even attempt to drive King to suicide—all to expose what Hoover and his G-men claimed in a racist panic as the hypocrisy of a nation’s moral leader engaging in “degenerate” sexual acts in private. The married civil-rights icon and father of four had extramarital affairs during his travels across the country; that much is known, affirmed by some of his closest surviving confidants.
The truth of the rest of it is hazier. But in seven years, when the rest of the FBI’s file on King is unsealed, there will likely be exhaustive scrutiny of the materials’ grimmest allegation, involving rape. It will be important that when the time comes, the complete, often maddening history of King’s fraught relationship with the FBI is not forgotten.
Director Sam Pollard’s upcoming documentary MLK/FBI, now playing via the DOC NYC festival and planned for a January release from IFC Films, devotes itself to examining that history through a wide lens. It supplies what some of the sensationalized initial responses to the FBI reports neglected, namely a justifiable skepticism of the FBI’s surveillance and recording methods and an emphasis on the racist fears behind Hoover’s mission to destroy King at the height of the civil rights movement. Rather than simply relay the FBI’s lurid version of King’s sex life, it paints a portrait of a revolutionary more complicated—and controversial in his time—than the reductive, oft-sanitized avatar of nonviolence trotted out every year for social media likes (often by the very same politicians actively working against what King fought to achieve).
The film is stingingly resonant in 2020 amid a resurgent movement against police brutality and racial inequity, and a new generation of protesters targeted by state violence. It offers a sobering if also galvanizing reminder of how adamantly U.S. law enforcement institutions have historically opposed the fight for Black and poor peoples’ civil rights, and how enduring the movement is despite that. Through archival footage, photographs, and interviews with historians and a handful of ex-FBI agents and King’s surviving confidantes, the film illuminates a stark picture of how white America’s fear of social progress is no Trump-adjacent anomaly—it is a damning founding element of our mainstream political order.
MLK/FBI offers in part an anatomy of the motivations of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, a force Hoover remade in his own white, conservative image during his decades-long reign as Director. In the ’60s, the Bureau’s borderline lawless COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) had explicitly outlined as one of its primary goals the prevention of the rise of a Black “messiah.” After observing the electrifying effect of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, the Bureau’s second-in-command and head of domestic intelligence William C. Sullivan sent out an urgent memo about King: “We must mark him now as the most dangerous Negro in the future of this Nation.”
Part of his fears concerned communism. With permission from Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the FBI had begun wiretapping a friend of King’s, a lawyer named Stanley Levison. A progressive white Jewish activist, Levison happened to be a former member of the Communist Party USA and helped organize and write speeches for King. Hoover’s fear that Black Americans would fall under the influence of communism spurred the president at the time, John F. Kennedy, to advise King to break ties with Levison. King assured him he would. But the wiretap revealed the two staying in touch long after King’s promise.
The deception was enough to convince Bobby Kennedy, under pressure from Hoover, to authorize a wiretap on King himself in Atlanta at his home and at the offices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Neither Hoover nor Sullivan mentioned to Kennedy that the Bureau had shifted its priority from sniffing out King’s potential communist influences to exposing the civil rights leader’s private life.
The Bureau had realized it could exploit King’s personal life by accident—a chance call King made while staying at the home of another friend the FBI had wiretapped, attorney and speechwriter Clarence Jones, tipped them off. Jones himself knew his home had been wiretapped, and recalls his subsequent months and years of suspicion that the FBI was spying on King, too. He says King became annoyed at him for it. “Clarence, don’t you know the FBI’s got better and more important things to do than wiretap our phones?” he says King told him. Neither were aware that the Bureau had since moved on to following King across the country, paying informants for his next whereabouts, and placing bugs in his hotel rooms and listening in from the room next door.
That changed the day that an envelope with no return address, containing a tape of alleged recordings of King having sex with women in hotels, arrived at the home King shared with his wife, Coretta. Along with it came an anonymous note from a fictional ex-admirer (in reality penned by Sullivan masquerading as one of “us Negros”) calling King a “beast,” “sexually psychotic,” and a “fraud.” It said “I know what you’ve done” and gave King a 34-day deadline. King understood the implication: The writer wanted him to kill himself.
“We always assumed who was behind it,” says Andrew Young, executive director of the SCLC and a close friend of King’s. That deadline came and went with no repercussions. But King lived from then on in fear of his personal life being exposed. Hoover, meanwhile, became obsessed—and increasingly frustrated that no church nor press outlet he kept baiting with information would bite.
Hoover’s alarm heightened when in 1968, King announced the Poor People’s Campaign, which would bring poor Americans of all backgrounds together to march on Washington, D.C.: “Blacks, Mexican Americans, American Indians, Puerto Ricans, Appalachian whites, all working together to solve the problem of poverty.” With the march on the FBI’s home turf approaching, Sullivan delved back into the FBI’s primary surveillance report on King, the one he intended to use to indict him. He began scribbling handwritten notes in the margins. Next to a section that described another Baptist minister’s alleged rape of a female parishioner in a D.C. hotel room in 1964, Sullivan wrote, “King looked on and laughed and offered advice.” It is the most incendiary allegation in the document, and one that comes with a host of red flags.
It was not a victim who made this allegation; it was the FBI, the film reminds us. And agents like the ones listening in the next room were rewarded for bringing in information about King that adhered to Hoover and Sullivan’s view of him as a sexual monster. These notes are based on audio recordings—but the note alleges that King “looked on.” How could Sullivan or the agents have known that? The agents, in other words, came to a lot of conclusions based on their own subjective judgments. The timing of the note itself is odd; if the agents in the hotel room had observed their main target commit something so heinous, why wasn’t it in the original report? And if the rape did occur, did the agents simply listen in from the room next door and do nothing?
The tapes and complete transcripts on which the FBI based its summaries and reports are under seal until February 2027, leaving the question of that rape allegation unresolved. In its place, MLK/FBI offers a crucial portrait of popular prejudices against King and Black Americans at the time, the kind Hoover and Sullivan shared. It is the context against which their Bureau’s allegations must be weighed.
Among those prejudices: the American tradition of demonizing Black male sexuality. The view that Black people, in asking not simply for token integration but for total integration and equal rights, were demanding too much. The stubborn belief that police were justified in their violent, unprovoked attacks on peaceful protesters. The snide idea that Black people had simply to lift themselves by their own bootstraps, ignoring the poverty that slavery and segregation left behind. “It’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps,” as King said.
Pollard includes newsreels of everyday people on the street voicing their opinions about King. “He’s too bossy. Thinks he’s too smart,” an older white woman says, wrinkling her nose. “All the trouble he’s caused in this country, all this rioting and things. I think he’s about the worst—if he is a human, about the worst in the world,” opines a Southern blond man in his thirties.
In a televised interview, journalist Gay Pauley Sehon, smirking the whole way, tries to make King answer for why “the nonviolence always ends with violence.” She asks whether he is sowing “resentment” among whites, “a feeling that the Negro is moving too rapidly, asking too much too suddenly.” It is all as selfish and ignorant—yet familiar—as the conservative opposition to today’s civil-rights movements. In that way, MLK/FBI is as much about the government persecution of King as it is about the timelessness of white America’s fear of change.