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Would MLK Find Success in Today's Society?

Reflections sparked by Sam Pollard's new documentary "MLK/FBI"

I don't know that Martin Luther King, Jr. would have found success in today's society. 

This thought continued to bug me as I enjoyed the three-day weekend for the first time since joining the workforce. In the wake of last summer's protests against racial injustice, my employer finally added Martin Luther King Day to our corporate holiday calendar. This baby step and what it implies—that corporate leaders perceive the celebration of this day as a substantive nod toward social justice—reveals how synonymous the late Dr. King's name has become with the Civil Rights Movement at large.  

In my public education, teachers presented Dr. King as the foremost icon in the fight for racial equality. His story felt like a legend from a distant past: I was relatively sheltered from America's pervasive racial inequality as I grew up in middle-class suburbs in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was only in college when I started watching films like Selma (2014), All the Way (2016), Do the Right Thing (1989), etc., and taking courses taught by professors like Dr. Todd Boyd that I began to engage with the nuances of Dr. King's legacy. 

This MLK Day, I decided to watch Sam Pollard's new documentary MLK/FBI (2021) to reconcile and revise my prior understanding. As this film explored the FBI's surveillance and harassment of Dr. King under the stewardship of J. Edgar Hoover, a handful of issues jumped out at me:

  1. The Cold War complicated Dr. King's efforts
  2. Mainstream media stoked public support for the FBI
  3. Top-down organizational culture enabled Hoover's abuse
  4. White America martyrized Dr. King to its benefit
  5. Private morality complicates public advocacy

Here are my thoughts.

The Specter of Communism

I had not previously known or realized the degree to which anti-Communist paranoia complicated Dr. King's fight for domestic civil rights. A bit naive, now that I think about it; after all, every issue at this point in history was connected to or influenced by the Cold War in some way. While MLK has remained a household name, most Americans probably don't recognize the name Stanley Levison, a white man who was part of MLK's inner circle. His prior affinity for Communist philosophies and organizations drew suspicion from authorities—so much so that the Kennedy brothers even suggested to MLK directly that he should distance himself from Levison. 

Dr. King (left) and Stanley Levison (right)

King did not, and it made him an easier target. Always racist and already paranoid, many white men in power dismissed the Civil Rights Movement as part of an overarching Communist conspiracy. Here is their absurd theory: since Black people are less intelligent and more susceptible to manipulation, their fight for civil rights may be a Soviet Plot to disrupt American society before taking over. 

Ridiculous, right? Not for people back then. 

(G)overment Man vs. (B)lack Man

When it came to Government-men and Black people, people of the time saw the "G" as "good" and the "B" as "bad." To illustrate this point, the documentary frequently draws on clips from films like Walk a Crooked Mile (1948), I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951), Big Jim McLain (1952), The FBI Story (1959), etc. to show how Hollywood molded audiences to think of G-men as heroes.

Films like Walk a Crooked Mile (1948) portrayed G-men as heroes

I must note that the Production Code of 1929, Hollywood's censorship rulebook, still dominated cinematic content at the time. Its golden rule of "compensating moral value" enforced that all criminal activity must be punished within the plot of a film, often manifesting as criminals being "brought to justice" by police officers or government agents. 

"No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin."
- Motion Picture Production Code of 1929

So the studios churned out films that reiterated and reinforced the notion that G-men are good. Concurrently, the long-standing tradition of portraying Black men as criminals continued. MLK/FBI shows clips from old cartoons and, of course, D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation to show how White America used media to craft racist narratives of Black men as criminals, especially sexual predators. In any film involving both crime and Black people, showing the white establishment bringing the Black criminal to justice was its "compensating moral value."

Culture Enables Abuse

To make matters worse, organizations like the FBI had few checks and balances embedded to encourage heterogeneity of thought. The film explicitly calls out J. Edgar Hoover for crafting the bureau in his image. During his exceptionally long tenure (he held the directorship position from 1924 to 1972) he ensured an entire generation of FBI agents would be white, conservative men like himself, with a special preference for fraternity boys and ex-football players. Honestly, how much has changed since then?

A lot. But the fact that I asked the question (maybe you did, too) just underlines how suffocatingly white, male, and conservative the Bureau must have been back then.  

No matter how qualified these men became by playing beer pong and football, Hoover's homogeneous culture exacerbated the aforementioned issues. He built an army of sycophants by hiring only those who already subscribed to his worldview. Among his soldiers, no one would point out that his concerns for "national security" were predicated on two racist beliefs: Black people are inherently easy to manipulate, and Black men are inherently hypersexual. Diverting resources away from real threats, the Bureau stalked MLK, recorded audio of his sexual encounters, and used these tapes to blackmail King's family and pressure him to commit suicide—all while mainstream movies continued to depict them as "the good guys."

White America's Martyr

It may come as no surprise, then, that public opinion heavily favored Hoover over King. When Hoover and King began to publicly feud, polls showed 50% in support Hoover and only 10-15% for MLK, with the rest answering "undecided." 

This reality is jarring. As a child, I was made to believe through education and popular culture that Dr. King was beloved, but my juvenile brain did not deduce that his being beloved now does not mean he was beloved then. We may praise his non-violent tactics, we may celebrate a holiday in his name, and we may take selfies with his monument in the nation's capital, but first, we assassinated him. William Sullivan, a high-ranking FBI official who played a key role in blackmailing Dr. King, is quoted to have said, "We must mark him now as the most dangerous Negro in the future of America." 

Words of William Sullivan | Screen capture from MLK/FBI (2021)

Since Dr. King died prematurely, White America was able to seize the authorship of his legacy. Although Dr. King helped win landmark victories such as the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, the establishment continued to disenfranchise Black voters, deny the existence of racism, build a Black prison labor force, and drag their feet on addressing racial equality. By omitting the nuances to his advocacy, those in power sanitized his story to their benefit.

Private Morality, Public Advocacy

In this modern America in which a distorted version of MLK has become White America's poster boy for "this is how you should protest," I wonder how the FBI tapes of MLK's sex life may affect his legacy when they are made publically accessible in 2027. 

The documentary ultimately feels most timely because of how Hoover's strategy uncannily presaged today's so-called "cancel culture": he wanted to expose MLK's infidelities to the world to discredit his moral standing, destroy his platform, and invalidate his success. 

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover

Thankfully, he failed, and there is a crucial difference between Hoover and the modern Twitterverse. Cancellations today result from the inappropriate things that people say or do in the public sphere. Hoover, in contrast, was driven by racist paranoia to record a man's sex life and blackmail him to commit suicide, and this man stands as one of the greatest leaders and agents of progress in the history of our nation. 

Still, MLK/FBI acknowledges the blemish on Dr. King's record. We do not know exactly what the 2027 tapes will reveal, and the film does not prescribe an answer to how we should handle the information. It simply tackles the complexities of a man whose public impact is irreplaceable, even if his private morality may be questionable. In doing so, it asks what I perceive to be the right question.   

Allow me to attempt an answer: we should punish those whose moral transgressions deem them unfit to lead, but we should exercise care in weighing their personal lives against their potential public impact. The Civil Rights Movement is not set back because Dr. King broke his wedding vows to Coretta, even if most people agree that infidelity is reprehensible. To cheat on one's wife while advocating for the dignity of Black people is hypocritical, yes, but hypocrisy does not make the original argument wrong. 

I don't think Dr. King would have found the same success today. Scandals spread too quickly—what required FBI surveillance then only requires a Twitlonger nowand such revelations could easily turn public opinion against a man before he could rise to lead a movement. We can evaluate Dr. King with retrospective omniscience and deem his accomplishments to outweigh his imperfections. But what if he were Mr. King, the activist upstart, not Dr. King, the civil rights giant? Would the users of Twitter and Reddit have recognized his potential?  

Screen capture from MLK/FBI (2021)

This challenge makes it more important than ever to check our prejudices and preconceptions. It underlines the need to consider contrary perspectives, to appreciate nuance, and to exercise empathy. Let us apply care and diligence as we weed out those who exploit social causes for personal gain, and let us also allow imperfect humans to stumble on their paths toward creating true progress.