The gorgeous reflection garden at the FBI headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, is graced by a Martin Luther King Jr. quote etched in stone: “The time is always right to do what’s right.”
Today, the FBI honors the life and work of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A quote from Dr. King is etched in stone at the FBI Academy's reflection garden in Quantico as a reminder to all students and FBI employees: "The time is always right to do what is right." #MLKDay pic.twitter.com/UKMLAAZw5w
— FBI (@FBI) January 20, 2020
While it’s nice that the FBI feels so inspired by King now, 50 years after his death, that certainly was not the case when he was alive. In fact, not long after the late civil rights leader made his most famous speech, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963, a memo circulating around the FBI called him “the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation,” and urged the bureau to “use every resource at our disposal to destroy him.”
It’s one of many details in the illuminating new documentary, MLK/FBI, that should be a wake-up call about what white America thought of King in his time—as well as what white America thinks of social uprisings taking place today.
Although the full extent of the FBI’s vast surveillance records won’t be released until February 2027 at the earliest, MLK/FBI draws on newly declassified documents to reveal how bureau architect J. Edgar Hoover tried to use its findings to erode support for King. (In an interview, former FBI head James Comey calls this period “the darkest part of the bureau’s history.”)
The film—which is out on Friday, January 15, on what would have been King’s 92nd birthday and just ahead of MLK Day—walks viewers through the uneasy relationship between King and the FBI. During the mid-to-late 1950s, when King first showed up on the agency’s radar, the FBI was apparently not very interested in him. Its agents began to pay more attention by 1962, however, when King became closer with lawyer, accountant, and “unsung hero of the civil rights movement” Stanley Levison, who had previously exhibited Communist sympathies—an uncrossable red line at the time. This relationship convinced the FBI to ramp up its surveillance efforts, and led to the only major dirt it ever dug up on King that is widely known today: his serial adultery.
As the film reveals, until the time of King’s murder, the FBI worked to use this information against him in any number of ways—including, famously, sending a tape of King with other women to him and his wife, along with a letter urging the leader to kill himself.
Forgoing the typical talking-head marathon, MLK/FBI uses a trove of old footage from TV shows, training videos, and newsreels to immerse viewers in the televisual world of the era. We see King’s rise juxtaposed with man-on-the-street interviews, in which ornery white folk opine that King is “bossy,” “thinks he’s too smart,” and is directly responsible for the riots that marred the civil rights movement. We also see how Hoover, who had twice the favorability ratings as King at the time, publicly calls King “the world’s most notorious liar” at the same time King wins the Nobel Peace Prize, and how that message lands with the public in the moment.
It’s difficult to watch the film without thinking of how we currently take in news about the civil rights uprisings of today. Imagine how much more successful Hoover would have been at getting out his message if Fox News and Twitter had existed at the time! Throughout the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police, the president and his allies worked hard to associate BLM with “anarchists” and “thugs,” even as Vice President Mike Pence held up Martin Luther King Jr. as a counter-example of the proper way to protest, as though Pence would possibly have been a King supporter in the 1960s.
Of course, it’s facile to merely point out that today’s Republicans might not exactly have been rolling out the red carpet for King had they been in power back then. MLK/FBI also illustrates the fickle relationship the mainstream media had with King at the time. We see King gracefully exhibit the patience of Job in taking condescending questions from TV interviewers, and we see newspapers hit him with negative headlines once he threatens what is apparently the wrong aspect of the status quo. (“Stick to civil rights and leave the war to the generals,” one protester yells at King after he begins protesting the war in Vietnam.)
The Democrats who blamed Black Lives Matter activists for losing House seats in the 2020 election would do well to remember that mercurial solidarity is a bad look in the eyes of history.
Although it’s not the film’s sole intention, MLK/FBI makes clear that the time isn’t always right to do what’s right, but true visionaries possess the foresight to do it anyway.