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Documentary Exposes How The FBI Tried To Destroy MLK With Wiretaps, Blackmail

From the March on Washington in 1963 up until his assassination in 1968, the FBI engaged in an intense campaign to discredit Martin Luther King Jr. and his work. Film director Sam Pollard chronicles those efforts in the new documentary, MLK/FBI.


Other segments from the episode on January 18, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 18, 2021: Interview with Sam Pollard; Review of book 'Aftershocks.'



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On this Martin Luther King Day, we're going to talk about newly declassified documents about the FBI's surveillance of King and the bureau's efforts to undermine his work and discredit him. There's a new documentary about this called "MLK/FBI." It's in theaters and is now streaming. The director of the documentary, Sam Pollard, spoke to our producer Sam Briger. Here's Sam to introduce the interview.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: From the March on Washington in 1963 to his assassination in 1968, the FBI tapped phones, bugged hotel rooms, paid informants, followed, threatened and blackmailed Martin Luther King Jr. in an attempt to discredit him. The film, "MLK/FBI," directed by our guest Sam Pollard, reveals the obsession FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and his second-in-command Bill Sullivan had for bringing King down.

At first, they feared he was being influenced by the communists. Accidentally, through their wiretaps, the FBI discovered that King was having extramarital affairs. And so they shifted their focus to uncover all evidence of his infidelity by bugging and taping him in his hotel rooms and by paying informants to spy on him. Eventually, the FBI penned and sent an anonymous letter to King, along with some of their tapes, suggesting that he should kill himself.

Sam Pollard is an Emmy Award winner and Oscar nominee. His first work as a director was for the groundbreaking documentary series about the civil rights movement, "Eyes On The Prize." He has also edited several of Spike Lee's movies, including "Jungle Fever" and "Mo' Better Blues." He has a pretty long list of credits as a producer, editor and director. But some of his films include "Mr. SOUL!" "Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me," and "Two Trains Runnin'."

Let's start with a clip from "MLK/FBI." We're going to hear some of King's speech from the March on Washington interspersed with some of the people Pollard interviewed for the movie.


MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So let freedom ring.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: When you look at the social movements from the point of view of the FBI, it looks very different. You know, J. Edgar Hoover is famous for saying that he feared the rise of a Black messiah.

KING: Free at last, free at last - thank God almighty, we are free at last.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: After Dr. King gave his famous March on Washington speech - Wednesday, August 28, 1963 - in a memo dated the 30 of August, no later than that, the second person in the FBI - it may have been Sullivan - sends a urgent memo in which he says, after the March on Washington, it's clear that Martin Luther King Jr. is the most dangerous Negro in America, and we have to use every resource at our disposal to destroy him.

BRIGER: That's a scene from the new documentary "MLK/FBI." Our guest is the filmmaker for the movie, Sam Pollard. Sam Pollard, welcome to FRESH AIR.

SAM POLLARD: Thank you, Sam. Glad to be here.

BRIGER: I think one of the main points of the film is that while today Martin Luther King Jr. is considered a hero and J. Edgar Hoover is often maligned as this authoritarian leader of the FBI, who was perfectly happy using extralegal means in his investigations, public opinion of them in the '50s and '60s was very different, wasn't it?

POLLARD: Yeah, it's amazing when you think back. You know, I forgot that in the mid-'60s, when they took a poll, that J. Edgar Hoover was more popular than Dr. King. Dr. King wasn't so popular back then. I mean, some people thought he was destroying the fabric of American democracy. So it's - you know, growing up as a young man, I had watched all these movies about the FBI. I had watched this television series, "The F.B.I." with Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., and I thought they were the good guys, you know, and that they were out there to take out the bad guys, be it gangsters or be it communists. So it's, you know, in retrospect in seeing - realizing how popular Hoover was, it's interesting that King has been such an iconic figure now, but he wasn't so loved - beloved by many Americans back then.

BRIGER: Although I think you loved both the FBI and King at that point, didn't you?

POLLARD: Well, I did. I mean, I grew up in a household where we had on our walls pictures of Dr. King, John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ. And then I was watching these TV shows, watching these old movies. So I didn't differentiate between King and Hoover back then.

BRIGER: Right. So what were the fears that Hoover had of Martin Luther King at the beginning?

POLLARD: Well, the first fear that he had was that King was going to align himself with the Communist Party, which, as you know, J. Edgar Hoover was obsessed with destroying because he felt the Communist Party was going to kill democracy. So when they first learned of Dr. King's relationship with a gentleman named Stanley Levison, who had been a former communist, they were pretty sure that he was going to be co-opted by the Communist Party. And that was when J. Edgar Hoover went to Bobby Kennedy, then the attorney general, to ask permission to wiretap and bug, you know, Dr. King and his associates. And then, they realized that after they were starting to wiretap and bug King, that it was - these extramarital affairs that they found out about, they thought they could use - that would be even more damning to Dr. King's reputation.

BRIGER: And you say in the film that the FBI had this paternalistic view of Black people, that they would be easily susceptible to communist influence.

POLLARD: Yeah because even, you know - I mean, because the Communist Party basically was saying to Black people that, you know, you live in America where you're segregated, where this Jim Crow exists, we're going to bring you into our party in the way we're sort of a communal organization, a socialist organization, you know, and you're going to be treated better than you are as a so-called American. You know? And it's clear that there were - sure, there were Black people who were attracted to the Communist Party. And Dr. King says - even says in the film, he's surprised they're not even more Black people who are attracted to the Communist Party because of all the things that African Americans have to deal with on a daily basis in America in the '30s, '40s, '50s and '60s.

BRIGER: Can you talk about the extent to which the FBI started bugging and tapping Martin Luther King Jr.?

POLLARD: Well, they went so far as to not only wiretap him but wiretap his close associates. There's a section in the film when Clarence Jones gets home and his wife tells him that she didn't know he was changing the telephones. There was a telephone repairman there. And when he told her that wasn't the case, he realized that the FBI had wiretapped his home. They were wiretapping anybody who were close associates of King and King himself, you know?

And then when they were starting to go even further, they were bugging the hotel rooms that King was going to stay in in different cities, from Birmingham to Chicago, you know? They were going to these hotels before King and his associates got there, and they would be let in by the management to bug those rooms and have the rooms next door and nearby where they could listen in to what was going on when King and his associates took those rooms. So this was an all-out sort of, you know, assault. And as Chuck Knox says, a former FBI agent, any time that King was going to go to a new city, the agenda was eight FBI agents were on the move to get to those places to start to monitor and wiretap and listen to everything that was happening within the confines of those rooms between King and his associates, members of the SCLC, Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

BRIGER: What do you think Hoover's hope was in recording King's affairs? Like, how did he plan to use these recordings?

POLLARD: His hope was to then pass it on to the press and that the press would publish it and that, you know, it would really discredit Dr. King and his reputation as this minister, this upright Christian minister who's leading the civil rights movement so people would say, oh, how horrible his personal life is. How can we follow this man?

Now, what he didn't bank on was back in the '60s, as you well know, the press did not take the bait. They did not take the bait. They did not reveal the personal lives of these public figures. I mean, they didn't do it with John Kennedy, they didn't do it with others, and they didn't do it with Dr. King. I mean, somehow, he just thought, well, here's a Black man who's supposed to be this upstanding minister, and, you know, this is material that can be used to destroy him. And they didn't take the bait. The press did not take the bait.

Now here we are in 2021. It would've been all over the paper, all over the social media, everywhere, you know? But the thing that I'm amazed by is even with the idea that the press now picks up on all the scandalous stuff of people's lives, there are people whose lives have been so scandalous and so projected in the news and social media and it still hasn't had much impact. I mean, look at all the stuff that's come out about Trump, you know? And none of it has stuck - none of it.

BRIGER: One of the people you interview for the film is the historian Donna Murch, and she says that the interest that the FBI had in King's sexual life can't be separated from the history of racial violence in the United States. I was hoping you might just talk about that a little bit.

POLLARD: Well, here's what you've got to think about. This is a country that was built on the backs of slavery, of enslaved people - you know, people that they would dehumanize, who were considered three-fifths of a human being, you know? And we've seen this history unfold in America, you know, where people were enslaved, and then a civil war broke out because of the fight to keep slavery and the fight for - some people believed that slavery should be abolished. Then we had a period called the Reconstruction, where Black people had a sense of empowerment, but then there were white people and Southern people who felt that was too much. And when Reconstruction was destroyed in the 1870s, then we had a period that we came to know after, you know, Plessy v. Ferguson, Jim Crow.

And we've seen, in the last 150 years, where Black people, Black communities were destroyed, you know, because white people said, they should not have a seat at the table. You know, violence in America against people who they feel shouldn't have a place at the table is the norm. You know, lynchings were the norm in America. You know, disenfranchisement of Black people and people of color is the norm in America, you know? So when you see a man like Dr. King who becomes the leader, you know, of the civil rights movement when he became recognized during the Montgomery bus boycott, it threatens the notion of what America was.

BRIGER: And I think David Garrow, in the movie, also says that there was something almost radical about King's sexuality that so outraged Hoover.

POLLARD: Well, it was the idea that he was a Black man who was standing up. Just remember what I just said. Black men - when you saw them, the way they were defined, they were afraid of their own shadows, you know? And then the idea that a Black man might have some sort of sexual prowess was frightening - that they would touch a white woman, they should be killed. I mean, that's why, you know, D. W. Griffith's "Birth Of A Nation" became such a popular film that led to, you know, the galvanizing - re-galvanizing of the Ku Klux Klan because...

BRIGER: Right. I was going to ask you about that because you used footage from that movie, actually, at this moment in your film...


BRIGER: ...This incredibly racist film, "Birth Of A Nation," which I think is actually the first feature-length film. So I was wondering why you decided to use that footage.

POLLARD: Because that footage shows you that the fear of America, of Black empowerment was to such an extent that D.W. Griffith, a white southerner, basically bought into the notion that, you know, we can't let Black people have any power. They need to be suppressed, you know, because if they gained any kind of political power, then they may think they have sexual power, and that can't happen in America, you know? So we have to make sure they're destroyed.

And that's why you see those images in the film. You see those images of these lascivious Black men, you know, gawking after white women. And then what happens? They will be destroyed and killed by doing that, by even showing any sense of sexuality, any - showing any sense of empowerment. And then when you see them in the Congress in that film, they are considered as buffoons, you know? And they weren't buffoons back in the Reconstruction, but that just empowers white people to feel like, we are better than Black people.

BRIGER: Yeah. In the Congress, they're - the Black congressmen are, like, eating chicken, and, like, they have their shoes off. And...

POLLARD: Yeah, it's horrific. It's horrible.

BRIGER: Have you watched that whole film?

POLLARD: You know, Sam, I'm a student of film.


POLLARD: I mean, there's a duality that I always have to confront when I watch that film and when I've shown excerpts from that film. And what's that duality? First of all, I know it's a racist piece of propaganda, you know, which I make sure - I have to say that to my students when I'm teaching the class - a class at NYU if I show anything from that film. But the other thing I always have to say to students - that from the notion of the technology of understanding how film advanced, it was groundbreaking in terms of what D.W. Griffith was doing, in terms of how he framed images, how he used medium shots and close-ups, how he used parallel editing. So I always have to do this tricky dance because I see the film from two perspectives - from the advancing of the craft of filmmaking but from the fact it was also a racist, horrific piece of propaganda.

BRIGER: How do your students react to that movie?

POLLARD: They hate to see it.


POLLARD: And I've shown that film off and on for 20 years in my classes, and every generation of students become more incensed with it. So at this point, I'm barely showing it now. I'm showing some other scenes from other Griffith's films and not that one.

BRIGER: Yeah. Well, we need to take a quick break here. We're speaking with Sam Pollard, whose new documentary is "MLK/FBI." It's a look at the FBI's investigation of Martin Luther King using newly declassified documents from the FBI - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with filmmaker Sam Pollard, whose newest documentary investigates the FBI's surveillance of Martin Luther King and uses newly declassified documents. It's called "MLK/FBI."

Perhaps the most troubling part of the FBI's campaign against King is when the agency creates this compilation of the tapes they have of him. And they send it to him with this letter that the second in command, Bill Sullivan, writes. It's meant to be this anonymous letter. The author is supposed to be, like, a former supporter of King who's now disillusioned because of these tapes. And it has a sentence that reads, you know what you have to do. And most people agree that it's suggesting that King should kill himself. And, you know, I think people have known about that letter for a long time. But it was only recently declassified, wasn't it?

POLLARD: Yes, it was. The thing to remember about that letter, too, was that they were trying to make it sound like it was not only a former associate, but a former - a Negro who wrote that letter, too, you know, that it was somebody from the community saying to Dr. King, maybe you should consider killing yourself. So just reading the excerpts from that letter from Freedom of Information Act, just reading that, it was - it's pretty disgusting to me to think the lengths the FBI would go to discredit and destroy Dr. King's personal reputation. And then, on top of that letter, then to send a tape to his wife, Coretta Scott King, that basically supposed to be King and another woman involved in some sexual activity is absolutely horrendous to do that. You know, this is supposed to be the nation's police that's supposed to be doing the right thing. And this is where they - this is the lengths they'll go to to destroy a human being. It's awful.

BRIGER: Well, you know, one of the people you interviewed for the movie was former FBI Director James Comey. And he says in the movie that that letter made him sick. And it represents the darkest period of the FBI. And it sounds like - in something I read, you said that when he was the head of the FBI, he kept a document from this period of time on his desk to warn him of the perils of abuses of power. Can you tell us about that?

POLLARD: Well - and the document is that letter. He kept that letter on his desk. His attitude was that he wanted to make sure that the new recruits of FBI agents were aware of that letter and what had happened during that period in the history of the FBI. And that's why he felt it was the darkest period in the history and legacy of the FBI. Now, I'm going to quibble with that and say, I would bet, again, that there will be some revelation, you know, in the next 10 to 15 years that shows it was even darker periods in the history of the FBI. That's my particular opinion about that.

BRIGER: One of the interesting things we learn about the FBI's operations against King is that the bureau had all these informants around him, including those within the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Who were those were informants?

POLLARD: Well, there was a gentleman who worked, actually, in the SCLC office who was an informant for the FBI. And the one that's probably the most famous is Ernest Withers, the photographer whose pictures - many of his pictures of the civil rights movement are considered iconic today, specifically his "I Am A Man" picture. And to know that Ernest Withers, who was well-respected by members of the SCLC, you know, the fact that he was talking to the FBI, it sort of saddens me. But, you know, he - it was a payday for him, you know? He wasn't making a lot of money taking pictures. And so this was to make some extra money from his point of view.

And, you know, the thing that's also - you should be aware of that Andy Young and Dr. King, they knew that Withers was on the payroll of the FBI. Obviously, they didn't feel it was so dangerous, so - that he was giving them information. But, you know, he did it, you know? He did it. I mean - and the thing that people should be aware of is there's documentary that's almost complete being directed by the African American filmmaker named Phil Bertelsen, who's going to do a full, feature-length doc on Ernest Withers. And he'll probably dig into this story even more than we did in our film.

BRIGER: One of the interesting points that you make in the film about the assassination is that, you know, you have the FBI constantly around King. They're listening to him in most hotel rooms, like, either next to him or near - down the hall. And they never warned him of threats to his life or even attempted to protect him from those threats. And at one point, I think, you ask, you know, with all the surveillance around King, why weren't they able to prevent this assassination?

POLLARD: That's exactly right.

BRIGER: What's your answer to that?

POLLARD: That's exactly right. I mean, how is it possible, as Chuck Knox was saying in the film, that when any time King and his associates went to a new city, the FBI was manned up to go and follow him and surveil him. So how is it possible - it was what you were just saying - that agents constantly surveilling King in nearby hotel rooms not to be aware of someone like James Earl Ray with a rifle who's going to shoot Dr. King? It just doesn't make any sense. And Andy Young's answer to me was that he doesn't believe it was James Earl Ray at all, you know? Obviously, you know, somewhere in there, there was some conspiracy, you know, where I personally think the FBI was involved in to take King out. I mean, it just doesn't make sense. It just doesn't make sense. And there's got to be someplace in some archive in some files, some tape where we'll learn the actual truth.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview our producer, Sam Briger, recorded with Sam Pollard, director of the new documentary "MLK/FBI." It's in theaters now and available for streaming. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Sam Pollard, director of the new documentary "MLK/FBI." The film draws on newly declassified documents about the FBI's campaign to conduct surveillance on Martin Luther King and discredit King in his pursuit of civil rights and racial justice in the 1960s.

BRIGER: Sam, Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. And...

POLLARD: Two days after my birthday, man.

BRIGER: Two days after your birthday. Yeah.

POLLARD: I turned 18 years old in 19 - April 2, 1968.


POLLARD: And I'm sitting in my house, in my apartment, with my family when my family lived in East Harlem on April 4. And the news comes on. And Walter Cronkite - Walter Cronkite, who was, you know, considered the bastion of American news, comes on and says, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. I couldn't believe it. And, you know, it was only five years before, when I was 13 years old on November 22, 1963 - I was in my middle school. And a teacher - my middle-school teacher came in and said school is going to be, you know, closed for the rest of the day because John F. Kennedy has been shot in Dallas, Texas. And then, almost three months after King's assassination, Bobby Kennedy was killed. That's a period of my life that I thought was, like, so impactful until January 6, 2021.

BRIGER: Well, you must think about that on your birthday all the time.

POLLARD: I do. I mean, you know, living through all these periods of American history - the death of those three men plus Malcolm X, you know, 9/11 - when I was - took my youngest daughter to school, she was in kindergarten. I'm walking back home in the village. And I look down Sixth Avenue. And I see there is a plane in one of the Twin Towers (laughter). So January 6, you know, 2021, I'm watching people, you know, invading the Capitol building. America, man. I'm sorry. Go ahead.

BRIGER: You know, the most common footage we see of Martin Luther King is of him giving one of his soaring sermons or speeches. But one of the things I really liked about your movie is you have a few shots of King standing silently. Maybe he's waiting to give an interview. Or he's just thinking to himself. And it's really compelling footage. And I wonder - I was wondering why you decided to use those kind of shots so frequently in the film. It's almost like a touchstone that you go back to again and again.

POLLARD: Well, it was just, basically, to show you that this man had a lot on his shoulders. He had a tremendous amount of burdens he had to deal with both politically, socially and personally. And I think that one of the things - and I really want to give a shout out to Laura - Laura Tomaselli, our editor - for being able to find those images, those moments when King looked a little weary, looked like he had the world on his shoulders, you know? This is a lot of work. This was a tremendous emotional, psychological burden that he was facing every day, he had to deal with every day, you know, trying to lead people to the promised land, supposedly, you know, and what he had to confront both from a personal level, both from a social level, both from a political level, you know?

I mean, it's amazing to me, Sam, the kind of composure that King had and he held when he's on some of these talk shows. When this - this one particular talk show when the lady's asking him, don't you feel that your protests are causing the violence in the cities, Dr. King? Aren't your people - aren't you moving too fast? I mean, his composure and his response to her is eloquent. Imagine what was going on in his mind listening to this woman, thinking to himself, is she out of her mind? Does she really know what she's talking about? But the other thing that's interesting to me also, Sam, is that, listening to that kind of conversation that King had to deal with and hearing that same kind of dog whistle in the 21st century during the time when Trump was running for president, how ANTIFA, how the Black Lives Matter is leading to all this horrific violence in the cities. It sometimes shows you that American history always has a tendency to repeat itself.

BRIGER: Well, I'm glad you said that because I was also really shocked by the kind of questions that King was asked and how similar they are to the way people talk today about race and how it seems like not a lot has changed on that. So I wanted to actually play a clip. And I'm not sure who's asking King this question. But I thought we could just hear - it starts with an interview, and then King answers.


SANDER VANOCUR: What is it about the Negro? I mean, every other group that came as an immigrant somehow - not easily, but somehow got around it? Is it just the fact that Negroes are Black?

KING: The fact is that the Negro was a slave in this country for 244 years. That led to the thingification of the Negro. So he was not looked upon as a person. He was not looked upon as a human being with the same status and worth as other human beings. And it seems to me that white America must see that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil. And so emancipation for the Negro was really freedom to hunger. It was freedom to the winds and rains of heaven. It was freedom without food to eat or land to cultivate. And therefore, it was freedom and famine at the same time.

And when white Americans tell the Negro to lift himself by his own bootstraps, they don't look over the legacy of slavery and segregation. I believe we ought to do all we can and seek to lift ourselves by our own bootstraps. But it's a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.

BRIGER: So it seems to me that, unfortunately, the reporter's question there still seems like a contemporary question someone had asked and that people still have to be making the same points over and over again.

POLLARD: It's the same thing over and over again. It's the same question you still hear. Well, how come they can't do it like we've done it? You know, we come here to America. We pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps. But King's response to that is exactly right, you know? I mean, we weren't - we didn't have any boots. It was - we were free. But we were not free. We didn't have any resources, you know? It was a different world, you know? We weren't considered human beings. And it's part of the American dilemma of confronting that and wanting to deal with it, which Americans tend not to. White Americans tend not to want to do that. Why blame it on our families? It wasn't us, you know? It happened so many hundreds of years ago. But that what happened so many hundreds of years ago lives every day in America. It lives every day in this country.

BRIGER: Sam, one of your earliest breaks was as a director for the documentary series "Eyes On The Prize" about the civil rights movement. That was about 30 years ago. I was wondering if you could reflect on what it's like looking at this era as an older man. Like, has your perspective on the civil rights movement or on King himself changed over the years and if you think that that is reflected in this new movie?

POLLARD: You know, my perspective on life, on King, on the nation, the state of America has really become much more gnarled and complicated as I've gotten older. When - if you took me back to 1987, when I did "Eyes On The Prize II" - I was one of the directors "Eyes On The Prize II" - and you watch some of those shows - I've watched some of the shows I worked on back then - it was a much sort of simpler sort of perspective, a little more naive, a little more, you know, what I call more optimistic and more pie-in-the-sky approach to the making of those films. And then since that time, over the last 30 years, my look at a world and America and the people that - who I admired and respected, I just - it's just been more complicated now. I've looked at them in such more nuanced ways as human beings. And so part of what I feel my responsibility as a filmmaker, as I make these films now in the last five, six, seven years, is to really delve into these people's lives in a much more complex way and to see them as human beings and not to sort of deify them into hagiography about them.

So, yeah, my particular take on the subjects and characters and the world is much more complicated than it was back in 1987 when I was a 37-year-old man.

BRIGER: How did you get into film? Was that a departure from what your family did?

POLLARD: Yeah. I grew up in a household where my father was a custodian. My mother was a homemaker. And my agenda was to go to City College in New York City because we didn't afford - I couldn't afford to go anyplace else. And I majored in marketing with the idea that I was going to become a businessman. And then my junior year at school, I was not very happy with the classes I was taking. I would see a counselor, a wonderful African American lady, and I said I was looking for some internship, something to do after school. And she turned me on to this workshop that had been started in 1968 after King's assassination to get more people of color in the editing room, in the - shooting, producing, doing sound. And it was a one-year program. And it really sort of, you know, galvanized me to want to get into the film business.

BRIGER: You've also worked on feature films. You've edited several of Spike Lee's movies, including "Mo' Better Blues," "Jungle Fever," "Clockers," "Bamboozled." What was it like for you to work with Spike Lee when you were both pretty early in your careers? I think "Mo' Better Blues" was his fourth movie.

POLLARD: Yeah. "Mo' Better Blues" was - he had done "She's Gotta Have It," "School Daze," "Do The Right Thing." Right. Yeah, "Mo' Better Blues" was his fourth movie. And I had just come off of my first producing gig on "Eyes On The Prize." So, you know, here was this young wunderkind. I had seen "Do The Right Thing" in the movies, and I was really impressed with that film. And then a couple of months later, I get a phone call from Spike. He wanted to hire me to do "Mo' Better Blues."

And, you know, I was sort of surprised. But when I took it on, I was excited because he was - it was a film that was in my wheelhouse. You know what I mean? It was about jazz musicians, and I love jazz musicians. And Spike was a director who I saw over the - who I realized over the next year had a very strong political and social point of view that really aligned with mine, you know? And so it was a collaboration that I thought was one that inspired me, too, in terms of how I thought about my own films that I went on to direct and produce to make sure that my agenda - my political agenda, my social agenda was hopefully front and center in my films.

BRIGER: We need to take another break here. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with filmmaker Sam Pollard, whose newest film is "MLK/FBI." More after a break - this is FRESH AIR.


BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with filmmaker Sam Pollard, whose newest film is "MLK/FBI," about the FBI's surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr.

You know, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a good day to consider where the country is in terms of racial equality and civil rights. And there have been two recent moments that have been battling in my mind about this. On the positive side - the election of Reverend Raphael Warnock to be the first Black senator in the state of Georgia. And, you know, appropriate to today's conversation, Warnock is the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, King's old church. And, you know, it's pretty obvious that his election is due to a large part of people of color in the state feeling emboldened to - that their vote matters and so, you know, increased diversity in the Senate and increased enfranchisement of people. Those are all good things.

On the other hand, on the day when Congress was supposed to go through, you know, a formality of verifying President-elect Joe Biden's electoral win, President Trump incited his supporters who then mobbed the Capitol, stole things. And you can see images of white men strolling, you know, through the building with Confederate flags. And, you know, I can't think of a more vivid recent example of white privilege than that. And it seems pretty clear to most people that were those people Black Lives Matter protesters, you would have had seen a drastically different response from the police that day.

So - you know, those are the two things that are in my head right now. What about you?

POLLARD: Those are exactly the same two things that are in my head, too, Sam. Watching that footage, watching these people smashing the windows of the Capitol building, climb into the Capitol building, walk through the rotunda with the Confederate flag and then go to the Senate floor to try to smash in those doors and the House of Representatives, you know, floor and smash in those windows and then to see these men sitting in the seats of power there where the president of the Senate sits. To see them in Nancy Pelosi's office with his legs up on her table, what a desecration of what it means to be an American.

But if you had - say something to these people, they say to you - what's their response? - we're Americans, and we have a right to do this. This is our house; we can do what we want. That's the attitude. That's their philosophy, no sense of good decorum or responsibility, you know? This is their house; they're going to do what they want to do. If they feel like this election was fraudulent, they're going to take steps to make sure that they stop it by any means.

I mean, it was - for me, watching it was pretty disgusting on one level. But on the other level, for me, seeing it was - I say, well, this is the America that Black people had to deal with during the years of Jim Crow. This was the America that if a Black community - like in Tulsa, Okla., you know, if they were empowered or in Wilmington, N.C. in 1908 - you know, white people would say, well, we don't want that community to exist anymore. They would go in and destroy it. If they heard, for example, that a white woman had been raped or a white woman had been touched by a Black man, that was the match that lit the fire for them to go and say, enough, we're going to destroy it.

You know, so it's both - for me, it was both enraging and made me angry. But on the other hand, it made me say, well, this is America. Some people said this is not America. It is. This is America also.

BRIGER: And what are your feelings about Reverend Warnock?

POLLARD: Well, listen. I think that what happened in Georgia with the election of Reverend Warnock and Jon Ossoff is phenomenal. The fact that these two Democrats could become senators in this Southern state says a lot about the Black communities in that state and the impact that the activists, led by Stacey Abrams and others, have in galvanizing the community to say we want change. I think it's wonderful. And the fact that Reverend Warnock is the minister of the Ebenezer Baptist Church is a symbolic win, really, for what Dr. King and members of his organization were doing in the '50s and the '60s.

I was in Atlanta a couple of years ago doing some filming for my documentary about the Atlanta child murders, and I went to the SCLC offices. And to walk through those offices and see the images of the history of that organization with men like Ralph Abernathy and Dr. King. And then to - right down the street, to have the Ebenezer Baptist Church, it revelatory for me to have that experience. But to now know that the minister of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Raphael Warnock, is going to be our - the first Black senator from the South is a phenomenal experience. I mean, it should have been the highlight of our day on January 6. It should have been the major highlight. But that was all put to shame with the attack on the Capitol building.

BRIGER: Well, Sam Pollard, thank you so much for coming to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on your new movie.

POLLARD: Thank you very much, too, Sam for having me.

GROSS: Sam Pollard spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Pollard's documentary "MLK/FBI" is now in theaters and is streaming.


GROSS: Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new memoir she describes as a classic search-for-identity story. This is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. Nadia Owusu is a Whiting Award-winning writer and urban planner. Her new memoir, "Aftershocks," delves deep into the fault lines of her own racial identity and family story. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has this review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: When Nadia Owusu was 7 years old and living in Rome with her father, stepmother and younger sister, two events occurred on the same day that upended her world. The first was a disaster she didn't experience personally, but heard about on the radio - a catastrophic earthquake in Armenia, where her mother's family had lived before they sought refuge in America. The second was the sudden appearance of her mother standing nervously at the front door, gripping a pair of red balloons in her hands. Owusu hadn't seen her mother for three years, but now there she was, along with her silent second husband. They'd been vacationing in Italy. Her mother whisked Nadia and her sister off for a day of fun before she vanished again.

As happens, especially in the minds of children, those two events became soldered together in memory. Here's how Owusu puts it in her new memoir.

(Reading) When I was 7, my mother showed up with an earthquake and red balloons. I remember her shaking hands, and I remember the shaking Earth. In me, private and seismic tremors cannot be separated.

Owusu's lyrical and tough memoir is called "Aftershocks." And though at first it may seem like an overly dramatic conceit for Owusu to tell the story of her life in terms of tremors, seismic shock waves and fault lines, those metaphors quickly come to seem apt, even restrained. Owusu's memoir is a classic search-for-identity story, one that's complicated by the fact that the ground beneath Owusu's feet is so unstable. Owusu's out-of-the-picture mother is white, an Armenian American. Her beloved father is Black from Ghana. His work with the United Nations gave Nadia and her siblings a cosmopolitan upbringing - Italy, England, Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda - but no fixed sense of home.

Being biracial intensified Owusu's apartness, and then there are the abandonments that fractured Owusu's life. One I've mentioned already - her mother's unexplained departure when Nadia was 4. That's followed by the death of her father when she's 13 and almost simultaneously the refusal of her mother to take in her and her sister. Instead, Owusu lived tempestuously with her stepmother until she left for college in New York, where, not surprisingly, in her late 20s, she experienced a breakdown.

Owusu devotes a portion of this memoir to surveying the ruptured histories of the many countries she's connected to, but it's her striking personal story and charged language that makes "Aftershocks" compelling. Speaking of her father's death, Owusu comes to realize that grief is slow internal bleeding. Reflecting on the stories she'd heard about the opposition of her father's family in Ghana to his marriage to her white mother, Owusu passes on this critical folk adage. Any river loses its identity when entering the sea.

Feeling her breakdown approaching, Owusu describes stumbling out of the speeding purgatory of her subway train, running into her apartment and spending seven mostly sleepless days rocking in a ratty blue chair she picked up off the street. There, she forces herself to confront questions about (reading) my upended dislocated body and mind, about the geography and geology of my experience, about who I was and how I'd ended up in the blue chair, about finding my way out of it.

Aftershocks, Owusu's father had told her on the day of the Armenian earthquake, are the Earth's delayed reaction to stress. Owusu's breakdown is one kind of aftershock. This well-wrought, often powerful memoir is another.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Aftershocks" by Nadia Owusu.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about what it took for women to break the glass ceiling in the medical profession in the U.S. Our guests will be Janice Nimura, author of a new book about an important figure in women's history and medical history, Elizabeth Blackwell. She got into a lesser-known medical school in the 1840s when the male students decided it would be an entertaining prank to admit her. She proved she was no joke. She became the first woman to receive a medical degree in the U.S. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with assistance today from Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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