Today, civil rights champion Martin Luther King Jr. is celebrated as an American hero, a moral leader and a shrewd political tactician. But, while the Civil Rights movement is often rosily recalled (and favourably contrasted by right-wing politicians and media voices with contemporary protests like Black Lives Matter or the act of taking a knee) it’s useful to remember that even before his assassination, King’s demonstrations were ferociously contested, and that he was targeted as an enemy of the state whilst trying to better it. Two days after his celebrated ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at the March on Washington, William C. Sullivan, the head of FBI domestic intelligence, wrote in an internal memo, “We must mark him now as the most dangerous Negro in the future of this nation,” and the agency hounded King throughout the height of his activism during the ’50s and ’60s.
The first film to uncover the full extent of the FBI’s surveillance and harassment of Dr. King, fuelled by then FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s racism and red-baiting paranoia, veteran editor and director Sam Pollard’s incendiary MLK/FBI is based on newly declassified files unsealed by the National Archives and vividly captures how the establishment came to fear his power and sought to destroy him. A rich archival tapestry, featuring revelatory restored footage and candid photography, this tense and absorbing documentary, full of contemporary echoes, reminds us that progress in America is always hard-won.