Robert Scheer SI Podcast

Sam Pollard: The FBI’s Crusade Against MLK Was Darker Than You Think

The film director discusses his documentary “MLK / FBI” on J. Edgar Hoover’s sickening surveillance of the civil rights hero.
“Do Not Cross.” Artwork by Mr. Fish.

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“You are done. There is only one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.” That’s the shocking ending to the infamous letter Civil Rights hero Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. received in 1964 essentially urging him to commit suicide.  The letter and accompanying package containing blackmail were sent by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as King quickly caught on. While the full, unredacted letter was finally published by the New York Times in 2014, the audio recordings of an extensive FBI wiretapping operation targeting King have been sealed until 2027. With just a few years left before they come to light, director Sam Pollard did a deep dive into the FBI’s surveillance of MLK under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover in his documentary “MLK / FBI,” released by IFC Films earlier this month. 

Pasted Image
Sam Pollard, director of ‘MLK/FBI’. Photo courtesy of Simbarashe Cha. An IFC Films Release.

Pollard, whose films have garnered Peabody and Emmy Awards as well as an Academy Award nomination, joins Robert Scheer on this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence” to discuss this heinous chapter in U.S. history and what it says about America both then and now. Talking about an FBI informant that infiltrated the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), for which MLK served as president, the award-winning film director comes to a harrowing conclusion.

“I know that the notion of informants in [organizations like SCLC] is probably still happening today in the Black Lives Matter movement,” says Pollard. “The FBI has not all of a sudden become clean and upright and upstanding. They still do those kind of shenanigans in any kind of movement that they feel is radical, be it Black movements or white supremacist movements. They still have informants, they’re still monitoring, surveilling these organizations.” 

Scheer, who knew MLK in his capacity as a journalist during the civil rights movement, as well as having interviewed members of the FBI under Hoover, offers his perspective on the film and the sinister motivations behind FBI surveillance. The “Scheer Intelligence” host argues that one of the drivers behind this operation was likely MLK’s antiwar stance during the Vietnam War, a position that was partly inspired by a gut-wrenching photo essay of the effects of napalm on Vietnamese children published in Ramparts Magazine while Scheer was its managing editor. The connection earned the journalist a place in King’s FBI files as one of the Civil Rights leader’s anti-Vietnam War associates that Hoover loathed. 

Describing the film as a compelling must-see, Scheer also points to one of the most significant questions raised in “MLK / FBI:” 

“How could the assassination of Martin Luther King have taken place,” the host asks the film director, “without the government knowing? Without the FBI knowing? They had him under 24/7 surveillance.”

I asked myself the same question,” responds Pollard. 


Listen to the full conversation between Pollard and Scheer as they discuss the implications of that question, as well as address the highly controversial summaries of the FBI’s MLK surveillance tapes discovered by King’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, David J. Garrow in 2019. You can also read the full letter from the FBI below:

(National Archives, College Park, Maryland/New York Times)

Credits: 

Host:
Robert Scheer

Producer:
Joshua Scheer

Introduction:
Natasha Hakimi Zapata 

Transcript:
Lucy Berbeo 

RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case it’s Sam Pollard, an extremely well-known documentary filmmaker. He’s been Oscar-nominated, Emmy Award-winning. And he has got a very provocative product now, documentary. It’s called “MLK/FBI.” And it’s really a story that’s been around for a long time, and been increasingly documented by the release of various files and everything; the sort of jackpot file won’t be released for another six years or so. 

But you know, really, let me just begin with this. To my mind–and you can rent it on Amazon, and it’s available in select theaters now, and then I guess it will go for a wider run–I found it to be one of the most compelling indictments of, ah, American society, in a way. Of government, of power, of the security state. And I don’t know if that was your intention, but really what you’ve outlined is a–you know, we just had Martin Luther King Day a few days before we’re doing this interview. One of the clearly recognized heroes of American life; very few people, even those who originally didn’t want to have a Martin Luther King Day, can deny his incredibly positive impact on American society. Just our incoming president Biden said that we have four hundred years we have not solved this racial problem, which is, you know, had the form of slavery and segregation and everything else. And there’s no other figure that stands out as clearly as having gotten a redress of grievances and raised our consciousness about it, and so forth.

And yet what your documentary reveals is for–you know, what, most of his active life, beginning in the fifties but certainly right up to the point of his death, the FBI, our secret police agency, really set out to destroy Martin Luther King. First on a political basis, then on a personal behavior basis. But they just used all of the apparatus of the state then–wiretapping and following and everything else; now, of course, that would be very much enhanced–really with the goal of destroying him, as effectively as any totalitarian society would do.

SP: Well, you’re absolutely right, Robert. That was the goal: to either first destroy him politically, but then that didn’t seem to take hold, and they decided to do it personally.  And I think that’s a sign of, you know, the kind of hypocrisy that we have to deal with constantly in America. You know, we say we’re the home of the brave, land of the free and home of the brave. But then, you know, they treat many of their citizens who are second-class citizens, and when those supposed second-class citizens are asking to fit into the mainstream, then when a person like Dr. King comes to the fore, along with other associates like Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth and others, they’re deemed as radicals trying to change what was considered the normal status quo of America. Which was, you know, white people were first–free and white and twenty-one–and Black people were treated as second-class citizens. 

RS: Well, yeah. But what’s really frightening about it–because I teach at University of Southern California; I have really sharp students who are nineteen, twenty years old. And I’ve known this story for a long time, but after watching your documentary, it really hit home. And I’ve asked people, sort of a focus group of a couple hundred people, you know, do you know anything about this? And I’ve done it before–no. There’s just simply not any knowledge, generally, about it. And Martin Luther King is now treated as–ah, well, this benign, wonderful fellow. No, he was actually, as your documentary makes clear, one of the world’s most renowned thinkers, activists; he won the Nobel Prize for that reason. 

And so let’s just go to the beginning of the story. You had in the FBI J. Edgar Hoover, this domineering figure that had turned this agency into a vehicle of his own personal power. And you know, he came from a segregated background; he was, you know, quite accepting of the whole pattern of oppression of Black people. And he took an animus towards King. Also his number two guy, a guy named Sullivan–and, by the way, a number three guy who doesn’t really show up in your movie, but who I got to know a little bit: Deke DeLoach was also in on this. I don’t know if you’ve come across–

SP: Yeah, I have, yeah.

RS: Yeah, and I actually met him a couple of times and talked to him about some of these things. This is when he had left the FBI and he was working at PepsiCo, of all places, doing PR and security there. But let’s cut to the hard core here. First the whole thing was to use the Cold War and the Soviet Union, and they found a couple of guys, and one in particular that you single out, who were Communists, or alleged to be Communists and so forth. And then they tried to smear King, and make that the whole deal about him. And it didn’t really fly. And it didn’t fly, basically, because these people were not typical of the Civil Rights Movement. But interestingly enough–and I think one quibble I would have at that stage of your film–actually, Communists, as demonizing as you want to be towards them, played a positive role in much of the Civil Rights Movement. Even W. E. B. Du Bois joined the Communist Party when he was in his nineties or something, just as a statement of protest. So you know, even on that basis, it was illegitimate to drag this McCarthyism into trying to destroy the Civil Rights Movement. You might not agree with that. But why don’t we just begin with that phase, when they were going after him as a political subversive?

SP: Well, they saw that he had this relationship, as you mentioned, with Stanley Levison, who had been–he’d been a Communist, and was a former Communist. And they felt that if they could connect him to Stanley Levison and the Communist Party, that would be a way to discredit and destroy Dr. King’s reputation. And as you just said, you know, Robert, it didn’t take hold. You know, and while they were wiretapping King and his associates, like Clarence Jones and others, they learned that King had a very complicated personal life, where he was involved with other women besides his wife, Coretta Scott King. So then they decided, well, that was a way to get to him. You know, by making sure they documented all these, you know, these relationships that he had in these different hotels around the country. 

But the thing to remember is that the press–unless you know something differently–didn’t dig into people’s personal lives like they do today. So it never really stuck. That’s what led J. Edgar Hoover and William Sullivan to create that letter basically saying, King, we know who you are, you’re a horrible human being, and intimating that he should kill himself. You know, on top of that, then creating this audiotape that was supposed to be King with another woman, that they sent to his wife, Coretta Scott King. You know, so not only to destroy his reputation in the movement, but to destroy his marriage. That was the goal.

RS: Yeah. And you know, first of all, we should remind people that the means that the FBI had then are nothing compared to what any government agency, anywhere in the world, can do now as far as learning about your private life, or who you are. And you’re right; in some sense, the media observed certain standards about what they covered. But the interesting thing–and I kept, I watched your movie a couple of times, your documentary–it’s very well done–

SP: Thank you.

RS: –I recommend it to people very strongly. Because you took the film, the Hollywood version of the FBI, and you kind of turned it as a sort of exploration of the real FBI.

SP: That’s right.

RS: And you know, you had these squeaky-clean FBI agents–you know, I remember, I was raised on those series: the FBI in peace and war, and they were the good guys and everything, fighting organized crime, and then fighting the Communists, and so forth. And the reality is that at a certain stage, they cared a lot less about organized crime or anything, and a lot more about being involved in this basically foreign-policy threat, which is not supposed to be the job of the FBI, unless you actually have evidence domestically. But Hoover was a fanatic, obsessed with this, as were his top aides. 

Now, the interesting thing–as you say, the media didn’t cover personal lives. The irony in your documentary is this only happened because of the approval of United States presidents and other leaders on the highest level, including Jack Kennedy. And I kept thinking, watching this, here Jack Kennedy knew what Hoover was doing, bugging bedrooms and hotels and following this guy, and you know, what is he doing now–you know, around the clock. Which by the way begs a big question in your documentary: Where were they when King was assassinated?

SP: Exactly.

RS: Because clearly, they’d been following this guy through every moment of his life, night and day. But the interesting thing is, there you have these scenes, you know, the footage and everything of President Kennedy saying well, you know, should you be looking, and then you do look. And Robert Kennedy was at that point the Attorney General. And the irony is that President Kennedy had a private sexual life.

SP: [Laughs]

RS: Fairly well documented, right? 

SP: Oh, yeah.

RS: And you know, and there are other presidents. I mean more recently Bill Clinton, for instance, certainly had as wild a life as anything that’s been attributed, as far as I know, to Martin Luther King or anybody else. So you know, what are we talking about here? Did the FBI kind of–I made the inference, maybe if the FBI could do this to King, why wouldn’t they have done it to Jack Kennedy? I mean, couldn’t they blackmail, couldn’t they intimidate, couldn’t they threaten to destroy a president of the United States, let alone lesser mortals, ordinary citizens?

SP: Sure they could have. I mean, you know and I know that Hoover had things on everybody. Sure they could have. Who knows if he might not have presented some of this information he had on Jack Kennedy. I mean, you said yourself, I mean, this man was the director of the FBI for over 40 years, and he had files on everybody. So he could really manipulate people if he wanted to, you know.

RS: Well, you know, your story–and people really, the documentary is really compelling, in a way, again–because as opposed to reading about this in a book, and there have been a few books out that have discussed these issues and so forth, and how they went after King–it’s well documented. We’re not now here with some wild theory or something. You know, we probably don’t even know the half of what the FBI did to King. But you know, the fact of the matter is, seeing it on the screen the way you have it really takes the mythology of law and order, which we are brainwashed into–the cops are always the good people, the virtuous, it was even clearer in the old days that it was good and bad. And you know, and then when they go after a guy, he’s evil. And that became this total obsession. 

And the interesting thing is that there was resistance on the part of these presidents, Kennedy and Johnson, because after all, they knew the Civil Rights Movement was on the right side of history. They weren’t, you know, locked into the segregated South anymore, when the Democratic Party was big in the South. And so they were torn. And Bobby Kennedy, who’s somebody I got to–who was then Attorney General–I got to know him well. In fact, I interviewed him the day at the Ambassador Hotel when he was killed, when he was assassinated. 

SP: Wow.

RS: I was with Jack Newfield, I had been in there interviewing him, we walked him to the elevator, and he went downstairs, and that was when he was shot. And I know by that point in his life, Bobby Kennedy was appalled by things that his brother had done, and that the government had done. And you know, but in the movie, you captured correctly that a lot of this had to have the approval of Bobby Kennedy, who was then the Attorney General. And the movie goes–it’s very interesting, because you have the segue: they went after him, you know, on political. And that got a little confused, because then the Civil Rights Movement, you had the big March on Washington, and you had court victories and so forth. And where Martin Luther King angered Lyndon Johnson was daring to come out against the Vietnam War. And he did it first in ’65 and got a lot of heat, lot of criticism from mainline newspapers. You know, including the New York Times, the L.A. Times, you mentioned the Washington Post. But then he went silent on that issue. 

But then what happened–and I happened to be a little bit involved in this, because I was the editor of Ramparts magazine. And in your movie you have Martin Luther King going to an airport, and he sees Ramparts on the stand, and he reads the story about the effect of bombing, U.S. bombing on children in Vietnam. And he feels the need: I have to speak out, I have to be consistent about my commitment to nonviolence. And he gives the speech that you have in your documentary, at Riverside Church, a year before he’s assassinated, where he condemns the U.S. government, then headed by Lyndon Johnson as president, who had been supportive of him, and they were close. And he says: My government is the major purveyor of violence in the world today. And he breaks with the government. 

And then he loses the protection of Johnson, really, to stand up to Hoover. And he goes into what your movie describes as a very lonely, dark period. I happened to know King at that time, because I worked a little bit on the Vietnam Summer that he supported, and I was involved in actually trying to get him and Benjamin Spock to run for president and vice-president. Benjamin Spock was the great baby doctor. And so I saw him at that time, and he was in a really hard place. Because not only was he being blackmailed by the FBI on stuff they were getting about his personal life, but he was losing a lot of his friends, even some very respectable civil rights leaders, but more important for his security, people powerful in the government, including the president. Is that a fair summary of what your movie says? 

SP: I think you know it better than me, Robert. You were there. [Laughs] So, yeah, you’re absolutely right. Everything you said, you’re absolutely correct. I mean, you were a viewer right there on the front lines. So yeah, you clearly know exactly what happened. You know. I mean, here’s my question to you: who took those pictures of those young kids in Vietnam? Who was the photographer? 

RS: Oh, that was a guy–well, Pepper was the–

SP: William Pepper?

RS: Yeah, William Pepper took them, and also assembled them. And you know, we only ended up publishing because no one else would publish them. 

SP: Someone told me–and tell me if this is correct–that William Pepper had showed those pictures before they were in Ramparts to Dr. King. Is that true?

RS: Well, that I don’t know. What I do know is, you know, there was a question of taste; after all, we were a glossy magazine, even though we were against the war. And we were on newsstands at airports and everything; you know, you don’t want to be yanked from that. And so that would be one reason why, even if they wanted to run it, you know, Life magazine might not have done it. 

But I do recall at that time that, you know, we got a tremendous response to it. Because this was U.S.-dropped napalm tearing the skin off children. And these children were not fighters against us; they just were people out in mostly rural areas, farmland, and they just were killed or maimed terribly. And that’s a problem that continues on to the present, by the way. Finally, reluctantly, after we made peace with Vietnam, finally we have actually even sent over a little bit of money to try to help these kids, now grown up and terribly distorted in their bodies, in their appearance and so forth. And many died, and it was terrible, you know, the carpet-bombing of Vietnam. And that’s what these pictures captured. 

But if you’re asking for my connection with this, let me just give you another point. When Martin Luther King gave that–and it’s really worth the documentary just to see that footage of him at Riverside Church, and to go into that whole incident. The movie–I just want to not get distracted from promoting this movie, because I think it’s compelling. And I want to say, it’s compelling, I think, because it is willing to say things that make us uncomfortable even about King. You know, this is not a PR thing. This is an attempt to really grapple with history. And there are people who really respect King, and then they’re going to say, well, what about his behavior, or what went on, or there are issues. And you have people saying that. So I applaud the movie in a sense of its courage, really. That you’re not ducking those issues. 

But what you are saying is that this was the U.S. government on the highest level–because it had the support of presidents–out to destroy someone who has turned out, and was even then, should have been recognized as our most useful, constructive citizen. That he deserved the Nobel Prize, he deserves a day of honor, he did more than any other single human being to educate and shame us into our–me, now, as a white person–our responsibility for this. You know, and it was interesting, because after he gave that speech at Riverside Church–and he knew what he was doing, because he knew the FBI was blackmailing him. He knew he was going to lose the support of the president, who he was criticizing. Because otherwise he could have counted, maybe, on Lyndon Johnson to tell Hoover, you’re not going there, we’re killing those, we’re going to tear up these tapes, whatever their validity–and we’ll discuss that a little bit later. 

So it was incredibly brave, for a guy who’s under the gun of the FBI and the president, to take on the president. Who up to that point was quite friendly and supportive, and could have watched his back, you know. And King gave that speech, and what was amazing to me is I couldn’t get a copy of it at first. I wasn’t in New York, I didn’t go to hear it, and–you know, but the New York Times had an editorial attacking it. And they had little bits of it. And then other papers, the L.A. Times, the Washington Post, everybody–they attacked him all over the place. Well, I got ahold of the speech, and I got ahold of a tape of it. Cora Weiss, she was somebody connected with that church, I remember she got it for me. And I got permission to run it in Ramparts, you know. And people were amazed at what he said, and then it got a lot bigger circulation. 

But at first, all people knew was that he had crossed a line. They said to King, stay in your lane–that was the main thing. You’re a civil rights person, you’re not an antiwar person. Stay in your lane, Martin. Those were the words, you know. And he said, no. That’s not my lane. My lane is human rights. You know, my lane is decency, justice. And I can’t do it, he said, I can’t tell–you remember there was a lot of struggle in the Civil Rights Movement then, because you had people like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown and everything, they were criticizing–you know, Malcolm [X]–criticizing King, and oh, you’re too moderate and so forth. And King was saying, well, how do I go into the ghetto and tell people, young men to avoid violence and practice nonviolence, when the government wants to ship them over to Vietnam and be purveyors of violence? That was the thrust of that speech. And that’s what turned, you know, Lyndon Johnson against him. But that’s what opened the door for Hoover.

And the big question I want to put to you, because your documentary kind of begs it: how could the assassination of Martin Luther King have taken place–and you know, they said they found the person who shot him, you know, in Memphis. When he was there advancing the cause of antipoverty, economic justice, saying people will not be free if they can’t have a decent living and so forth. You know, these days we recognize that as an obvious truth. How could that have happened without the government knowing? Without the FBI knowing? They had him under 24/7 surveillance.

SP: I asked myself the same question. You saw I asked the same question, you know, to Andy Young. I mean, it’s not possible that the FBI could not have been aware of someone, if it was James Earl Ray or not, who wanted to assassinate Dr. King. It just doesn’t make sense. And probably you know this as well as I do, Robert: there’s some documentation or some audiotapes that will probably come out after we’re all gone, that will give us some insight into what really happened on that day when King was assassinated. 

RS: But, you know, as your film makes very clear, at that point he was the most surveilled person in the United States. He was being watched 24/7. They rented rooms next to his room in any hotel.

SP: That’s right.

RS: They followed him, they checked him, they monitored him, they had a task force assigned to him. And there’s just no way you can look at that and not think that, you know, they knew something was up and they thought this was too good to check. Because they wanted him dead. And we should talk about that. That the United States FBI, and Sullivan, the number two guy who was in charge of basically North American security, he was the one that engineered it. I actually, you know, as I say, Deke DeLoach knew all about it, and I had questioned him once about it. And actually in the early seventies or something I was writing a piece for Esquire about Pepsi, and I got to know him there.

But the fact is, their records–and there’s an issue raised in your movie: what are we going to learn in, what is it, 2027 when the final files are released? But what has been released so far is not the word of God. It’s not necessarily truthful. These are transcriptions, very often edited by hand, or added to by hand, about King’s behavior. I’m talking about the scandal-mongering that they did. And I’ve looked at a lot of blacked-out FBI files, and I’ve even got a few about myself that I’ve been able to secure. And there’s a lot of hearsay. And there’s a lot of speculation, and there’s a lot of padding the books. These documents are in no way something that you have to take literally and always as accurate. And you actually raise the question in your documentary, because the most devastating claims made about King, the question of a rape that took place supposedly in his presence–that’s based on those handwritten notes.

SP: That’s exactly right. So who knows exactly what really happened in that room. And the question you have to ask yourself, Robert, is you’re right, I mean, the FBI was obviously prejudiced against Dr. King, and they had their agendas. So they could have read anything into what was going on in those rooms to make it work for them in terms of trying to discredit Dr. King.

RS: Well, let me go further than that. In your documentary–the documentary is called “MLK/FBI.” I really recommend it, because you know, you can quibble with it, but I think it has to–first of all, in this day and age of modern surveillance, where everything we do is under some microscope–I mean, that’s very clear, it’ll make you, it’ll really frighten you. It’s Orwellian, it’s incredible. But one of the things you’re just bouncing up against, they not only had this guy under observation, they were infiltrating all of these groups. They were placing agents in all of these groups, at his rallies, inside civil rights groups, including Black agents who were sources or informants or so forth. And some of the people, you have one individual in your documentary who was sitting, like, in a desk next to Martin Luther King. And he’s working for Hoover.

SP: And you know–you know, Robert, he’s still alive. And he–

RS: Well, tell us about this. Because I’ve told you all my insights, but you’re the guy who owns this story now, so tell us about it.

SP: Yeah, he–the gentleman who was working for the SCLC who was an informant for the FBI is still alive. He lives in Atlanta. And my producer, Ben Hedin, felt that we should go to his house and do the Mike Wallace gotcha moment, with the cameraman behind you, and you knock on the door and say, weren’t you an informant for the FBI and worked for the SCLC? But I was always a little opposed to that, because to me that wasn’t the type of film I wanted to make. But he’s still alive, you know. And you know and I know that the notion of informants in these organizations is probably still happening today in the Black Lives Matter movement. You know, because the FBI has not all of a sudden become clean and upright and upstanding. They still do those kind of shenanigans in any kind of movement that they feel is radical, be it Black movements or white supremacist movements. They still have informants, they’re still monitoring, surveilling in these organizations.

RS: Well, yeah. And actually, they always were supposed to be squeaky clean. In your documentary you talk about Hoover recruiting people that were certain–well, they were all white, almost all. But they even looked the same.

SP: That’s right. They would look a certain way, act a certain way. Exactly.

RS: Out of a cookie cutter, you know. And they had a certain, they generally were quite conservative, they were supposed to be religious, et cetera, et cetera. And one of the things that keeps popping up in this movie, which is true, is they not only were offended by the politics of the Civil Rights Movement and the lifestyle of anybody, but they were offended by the very idea of protest. Whatever form–after all, Martin Luther King is the one who made nonviolent protest, took great risk for it and made it, maybe next to Gandhi or right alongside Gandhi, probably the major proponent of this worldwide. If not the, certainly the second or so. I mean really, there’s no individual, other than maybe Gandhi, and that was more limited to India, but then it became a worldwide example, of the idea of you don’t–you join in the enemy when you become violent. And that you have to put your body on the line. 

And recently I just read, did a podcast on a good book on Jimmy Carter, by Jonathan Alter, just came out. And there in Americus, right down the road from Plains, was where Martin Luther King was in jail, you know. They had the worst sheriff, right in Sumter County where Jimmy Carter came out of. And Jimmy Carter came out of a segregated environment. And even when he became governor in ’70, he was elected with the support of segregation. He ran against a more New South, liberal-type guy, but the fact of the matter–and then he changed. And he embraced, and that’s why Georgia now has two senators that are far more liberal than we could ever imagine, and one being Black and from the same church as King. 

So things have changed. But it isn’t ancient history. And Hoover was a critical part of trying to destroy not just King, but the Civil Rights Movement. Yes, he could be ordered by the president to supply support to children going to school, and that even started with Eisenhower, you know. But he was not at all sympathetic to this movement. 

SP: What does that say about America, Robert? Because it’s not just–you know, think about it this way, Robert–and you were a grown man at the time. What does that say about America? Because Hoover’s not doing this in a vacuum. What does that say about America, Robert? 

RS: Well, I–you know, it’s interesting, because President Biden in his speech, he said he’s going to address this problem but it’s 400 years old. [overlapping voices]

SP: –ask a question: What does that say about America? 

RS: Well, I do think America is a profoundly racist society. 

SP: Right.

RS: There’s no question about it. That’s the main way–and in fact it’s the main way they’ve held down working-class whites.

SP: Exactly.

RS: There’s a rich history on that. Because there was a populist movement of whites who wanted to be paid more, and they were strong in the South, and a good book just came out about populism that I also did a podcast on, so I learn a lot about history doing these podcasts. But the fact of the matter is, we celebrate–some people celebrate the Democratic Party because it’s not the Republican Party. But in those days, the Democratic Party was the party of segregation.

SP: Well, because the Republican Party, as you know, was the party of Lincoln, and Lincoln emancipated Black people. So Black people were Republicans up until, you know, till Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president of the United States. 

RS: Right. So, look, I mean, I don’t want to wander away from this movie, because I think the movie has a power–

SP: You’re not wandering–Robert, you’re not wandering away from the movie. This is–and I have to get off at 3:45, so I just want to tell you that. But everything you’re saying, Robert, speaks volumes to what this movie is speaking to. It’s speaking to the hypocrisy of America. It’s speaking to the hypocrisy that J. Edgar Hoover was a symbol of white America, white American racism. You know, it’s speaking to the idea that for 400 years, white people–and you know this from your own history. There was always this attitude that people of color were second-class citizens, and that’s where they should stay; they should be happy where they are. And how dare someone like Dr. Martin Luther King say, we want to be integrated, we want to be part of the mainstream. You know, how dare he do that? So we have to destroy that man. 

RS: Yeah. And let me push it a little further, though. I think what Martin Luther King demonstrated was a superior virtue to a society that hid behind its virtue. He, after all, was not a denier of Christ; he embraced Christ. 

SP: I disagree with you. They didn’t hide behind their virtue. They hid behind their hypocrisy. 

RS: OK, I apologize. They hid behind their claim of virtue, right? And I’m talking about the good Southerners, and the so-called more liberal folks. I mean, that’s–you know, OK, we are going to wind down. Let me just tell you, I got taken to school on this by Willie Brown, who most people think is just a very successful politician, you know, ran the California Assembly and became mayor of San Francisco. One day Willie Brown told me about Minneola, Texas, which I actually had visited, the little town he was born in, in Texas. Where he would walk down the street, and white kids, even twelve years old, fourteen years old would walk up the street–his father would have to get out of the sidewalk and get into the gutter, OK? And he described that reality, not just going up in crow’s nests and not being able to watch movies in the regular theater, but the brutality, the barbarism of it, the lynching, the killings, the whole thing, you know. And what we do is we always whitewash our history. We did it with the Native Americans, we did it with the genocide; this pattern defines the country, OK, and that’s clear. 

But what I was trying to get at is it wasn’t a question of letting them in the door, whoever the “they” is, whether it’s Native Americans, or at some point it was even women. You know, Black people, brown people, what have you. But what they couldn’t stand about King was his virtue. His leadership. You know, that King was not just screaming and getting angry and talking about violence. He was telling people, asking them, begging them, extorting them, and demanding that they take this higher road. You know, and you have enough of–but people know that; they’ve been exposed to that King. That’s what they found, people like Hoover and the politicians that backed him, that’s what they found–

SP: Yeah, but Robert, this is where I disagree with you. I think you’re completely incorrect. What they had an issue with wasn’t the fact about his virtue, Robert. They had the problem with the fact that a Black man had the gumption, had the audacity, to stand up and say, America should integrate its country. It should be part of the mainstream. They didn’t think about his virtue! They didn’t care about that at all, man. You know [overlapping voices]–listen, Robert. It’s only in retrospect that people can say that. When it was happening, they didn’t think about him as a virtuous man. They saw him as a Black man who was standing up. He wasn’t–he was radical, from their perspective.

RS: OK, I’m actually not in disagreement with you, but I want to give you just one example, and it does come from your documentary. It’s when King wins the Nobel Prize. OK, now he is recognized by the whole world as the most virtuous man in America, OK? This is not kidding around; this is serious, OK. So it’s not just that he’s been active in a cause that has virtue. He himself is being celebrated worldwide. And he’s being celebrated worldwide at a time when Lyndon Johnson, the president, is being condemned as a murderer, bombing people, by people all over the world, including where the Nobel Prize is granted. And so you have, in this period when he is killed, that Martin Luther King is actually the major, worldwide, American symbol of integrity, of intelligence, of decency, of justice. He’s not, it’s not, you know, in his own backyard. 

SP: Well, that’s right [inaudible] in 1964, yeah, you’re absolutely right about that. 

RS: And so what I’m saying is, it was a challenge to the society about its own failures. First of all, failure dealing with race, but failure dealing with war, failure dealing with wealth, failure dealing with a lot. Because after all, Martin Luther King is the person who told us we have to care about poverty. Poverty of anybody. Well, we’re in the most class-divided society now, you know. Even in this pandemic, I just was reading Bloomberg News, it’s the sharpest division we’ve had because the wealthier 20% have gotten rich in this pandemic, and everybody else has suffered. And so what Martin Luther King did is he pushed the envelope in more ways than one. And that’s why he was so threatening. And that’s why Hoover–let’s end on this, because you have to go. But let me just say, I want to put a question to you. The reason King was–King was killed–and that I’m very clear on, you know, just the record is so clear, I’ve spent a lot of time on it. A man as observed as he was, followed night and day, the FBI, at least key people like Sullivan, had to know about this, had to be informed. 

SP: Well, here’s my question to you, Robert. Here’s my question. You have to–I mean, someone’s got to show me documentation, audiotapes or something, that speaks directly to what you’re saying. I mean, this is conjecture, and you’re right, it’s possible. But the only way it’s going to ever really be solidified is if someone presents information that says exactly what you’re saying. Do you agree?

RS: Yeah, or you have an inquiry about it, even at this late stage.

SP: An inquiry–an inquiry you can have. I’m talking about– [overlapping voices]

RS: –investigate it. In your movie, you said they did investigate, and they got [unclear] and so forth. But no one investigated this question–it’s like now, you know. What were the Capitol Police thinking? What happened? How were people allowed to get in, and so forth and so on? There are obvious questions, and you either follow them or you don’t. This is not, you know, some just wild thinking. But it just triggered in my mind, watching your documentary, there’s no question that he was the most, at the time of his assassination, the most observed person in the United States by our chief security agency, the FBI. [overlapping voices] They were all over this guy, that’s–[overlapping voices] take me through the last 24 hours–

SP: Robert, I don’t deny that. I mean, listen, you know, and I feel the same way; I mean, obviously, there is some kind of conspiracy going on. All I’m saying to you, sure, you can have an inquiry, but someone, whoever has this inquiry has to bring me some substantive facts. That’s all I’m saying. 

RS: Well, and the problem is–let me just draw a little theory–you don’t have to pull the trigger. You just have to look the other way or not be there. That’s the issue. It’s like what happened at the Capitol recently. Yeah, people are coming and they’re going to do stuff; you know, maybe this is the day I don’t go in to work and I don’t have everybody on duty. You know? Or maybe–you know, yes, this is speculative. But I’m trying to relate it to your movie. In the movie you have an image of a suffocating–suffocating–observation of this guy, to trap him, to be aware, what did he do at 9:00 in the morning? What did he do at 11:00 at night? Where is he, who’s with him? And planting people near him. You know, you have evidence in your movie, the person who’s serving him food, or in the restaurant–he’s constantly surrounded by people who are being rewarded for coming up with information about the minute details of this guy’s life. You know, and then, in the middle of a real big public thing, this war on poverty, he’s going to take people on a march to Washington, he’s very active, people are getting really agitated, they’re alarmed, what is Martin doing down there, what is going on–and you’re going to tell me that he gets on that balcony–

SP: Robert, I’m not disagreeing with you. All I’m saying is that this is all conjecture until someone presents substantial facts, that’s all. 

RS: Sure it is, but it’s a conjecture provoked in my mind, most recently, by your documentary. 

SP: Well, that’s good.

RS: That doesn’t mean you own it or anything. But it just is a question that emerged. And people listening to this, they haven’t read the letter–let’s just end with this. This letter, this fake letter–fake news, fake letter–was written by Sullivan, right? This number two guy–hello?

SP: Yeah, it was written by Sullivan.

RS: Yeah, it was written by the number two guy in the FBI, it was probably shown–OK, it’s conjecture. I assume that Hoover had given him the authority to do it, you know. And they send it as an anonymous letter, right, saying you’re going to be destroyed, you’re scum, you’re terrible, evil–horrible language they used, and everything. And after all, Hoover had publicly already denounced–he should have been fired as head of the FBI for publicly denouncing Martin Luther King, who hadn’t been convicted of any such crimes or anything. So you send this letter with the idea of destroying this guy, not only his marriage, but getting him to kill himself. That’s what that letter recommends. The only way you’re going to get out of this is to kill yourself. So that’s a kind of strange but weird death threat: you’d better kill yourself, or just as bad is going to happen to you. Now, that’s the most powerful moment in that movie of yours for me, and I know it’s true because I’ve read the letter and I’ve read all the literature on this. Now, if that’s their mood, they’re certainly at the very least not giving this guy the security you would normally give–

SP: You’re absolutely right. And I think these are good questions that you’ve raised, and I’m glad that the movie has raised these questions. And I mean, and maybe someone should come forward and send–people should maybe send letters to the FBI talking about inquiry, to their nearest congresspersons. But I’m going to have to sign off. And I really thank you for the 45 minutes, Robert. 

RS: And I want to thank you for your documentary. And I want to tell people just one last thing. You’re an honest filmmaker. And there are things in this movie that will disturb people who like King and respect King a lot, and the Civil Rights Movement, and there are questions you raise in a lot of different ways. And you have people of different points of view in this documentary. It is a very honest piece of journalism–

SP: Thank you.

RS: –for my money. And I just want to end by saying that. It’s not going to make everybody happy, but it will get everyone thinking. 

SP: That was the point, to get everyone thinking. All right, thank you.

RS: OK, take care. That’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. And I want to thank, first of all, our guest. And you should check out the movie, MLK/FBI, and it’s available, and that was Sam Pollard. [omission] And I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW, the NPR station in Santa Monica, for posting these shows. And I want to thank Natasha Hakimi Zapata for writing the introduction, and Lucy Berbeo for doing the transcription. And Joshua Scheer, our executive producer, for putting these shows together and getting these great guests like the one we just had. 

And I want to have a special thank-you, shout-out once again to the JWK Foundation for help in funding for these shows, in honor of Jean Stein, who was a terrific writer, editor, and actually really an observer and commentator on these events. Knew King, knew the people in the Civil Rights Movement, and was an active supporter, so good to mention Jean Stein again. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. 

11 comments

  1. Someone should write a book about the damage done to America by J. Edgar Hoover.
    A psychologist would be best equipped to handle the subject of a closeted, apparently self-loathing gay man in the America of his day. I’ve read far too many accounts of his actions regarding major political events, from the red scare days, to his handling of the JFK assassination, and, of course, his persecution of MLK. I’ve read that he kept files on everyone in public life; secret files pertaining to their political and personal activities, with a special focus of their sex lives. These special files were kept sequestered in his office, and allegedly disappeared after his death. I’ve read that it was Hoover that gave LBJ the dirt he needed to “persuade” a reluctant Earl Warren to head what came to be known as the Warren Commission. I’ve read that Hoover himself was blackmailed by organized crime by an arrest record they had which revealed his arrest in 1919 in a gay bordello in New Orleans. The CIA supposedly blackmailed him into cooperating in the coverup of JFK’s murder by showing him photographs of him in compromising sexual situations. Over the years people have grown much more open-minded regarding peoples’ sexual orientation, which is a good thing, certainly. However, the damage done is still with us today. Perhaps its time the full story (or what’s left of it) should be told!

  2. No mention of William Pepper’s two exhaustive books on the assassination of MLK, pinning it on a Memphis cop, with FBI/military backup. The accused killer, James Earl Ray, was exonerated by a civil jury and also by the King Family. Why is this issue not touched upon by ‘investigative’ journalists?

    1. Excellent reading. This was one of the best interviews I’ve seen on Scheerpost.

    2. This is bizarre. I absolutely agree with you. The civil trial, the books and numerous talks Pepper has given about this very subject.

      How they had to grasp for his name….WILLIAM PEPPER! Scheer should’ve known and really so
      should’ve Pollard – well the name did register but come on.

      1. They don’t want to get into trouble with the FBI? They haven’t read the evidence? They have an incomplete understanding of the capitalist class and their repressive creatures? Death squads didn’t just operate overseas…

  3. So why no reference to the expose’ by Rep Cynthia McKinney?
    She pretty well laid out the CIA/FBI partnership that saturated Memphis with agents that week. Then there’s James Ellroy’s fascinating “fictional” account “The Cold Six Thousand”……….. covering the period from JFK thru MLK & RFK.

  4. Slight correction: Clyde Tolson was second in-charge at the FBI (convenient for Hoover).
    When the Powers That Be decided assassination was acceptable in the ’60s as secret public policy, that’s about as dark as it gets. A lot of public policy always comes out of War (Vietnam at the time, but look at our hypermilitarized Police State today. They’re inseparable.)
    No mention of the Martin Luther King family’s civil trial in 1999 establishing a Conspiracy to assassinate King? William Pepper convinced the jury in a unanimous verdict within an hour of deliberation. The Government (Janet Reno) quickly announced no evidence of a conspiracy, as with all the other political assassinations during the ’60s.

  5. Thoroughly confused. Are Robert and Sam of the opinion that Pepper’s books and the civil trial are not credible?

  6. From the Garvey Movement to the Black Panther Party, J. Edgar Hoover was the most destructive institutionalized white supremacist of the 20th century. RFK allegedly approved the Dr. King wiretaps because Hoover threatened to expose JFK’s tryst with Ellen Rometsch, a suspected East German double agent, per David Garrow.

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