To commemorate Martin Luther King Day on Jan. 17 a pair of documentaries will focus on two of the most important relationships in the civil rights champion’s life: that with his wife, Coretta Scott King; and with his nemesis J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI.
For Martin and Coretta it all began in Boston in the 1950s. In his short film “Legacy of Love” (2020) Roberto Mighty traces the intersecting trajectory of their lives, from their disparate origins to their fateful meeting.
King, the scion of a socially prominent, well-to-do Black family in Atlanta, had excelled scholastically (he skipped two grades) and had pursued his calling to the Baptist ministry at Boston University where he entered the doctorate program in theology.
Additionally, he served as an assistant pastor at the famed Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury. There he incorporated his developing notions of a “social gospel,” of the church’s social and political responsibilities, in his increasingly eloquent sermons. He also impressed people with his savoir-faire, fancy clothes, and flashy automobile, developing a reputation as a charmer and a playboy that his father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., was eager to curtail. To do so he set to matchmaking his son with women who would make a proper wife for an aspiring clergyman.
The elder King probably didn’t have in mind Coretta Scott in that role. She was from a hardworking family of modest means in the rustic, unincorporated community of Heilburger, Ala. During the Depression she and her siblings worked in cotton fields to earn extra money. But Coretta was gifted and motivated. She became the high school valedictorian and attended Antioch College, in Ohio, as one of that progressive school’s first Black students. A talented soprano, she received a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music.
A mutual friend set the two up on a blind date, and the smitten King recognized Scott as the ideal woman to become his wife — and he told her so. Scott was not as impressed, put off by King’s temerity asking her on their first date to marry him. Plus, he was short. Nonetheless, they continued to date, and both recognized a mutual commitment to social justice. In 1953, they married.
Mighty puts this love story in the context of a Boston that already had a strong tradition of Black activist leaders, like Melnea Cass and Elma Lewis. Though Mighty does not note it, at the same time that King and Scott were courting Malcolm Little of Roxbury, later known as Malcolm X, was serving time in Norfolk State Prison, where the Nation of Islam was courting him. Malcolm X and King would not share the same path (they met once, in 1964), but they did share destinies.
“Legacy of Love” broadcasts on Jan. 17 at 7:30 p.m. on GBH 2 and can be streamed on YouTube TV, PBS.org, and GBH.org.
Though King has been revered since his assassination, during his lifetime he was despised by many and the target not just of hate groups but of government agencies, including the Department of Justice and the FBI.
Sam Pollard tells that ugly story in “MLK/FBI” (2021). He opens with King’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech, in Washington, D.C., in 1963, where King is introduced as “the moral leader of our nation.” But an FBI memo at the same time described him as “the most dangerous Negro” in America. J. Edgar Hoover had learned about King’s friendship with civil rights attorney Stanley Levison, a former Communist, and conveyed his concerns to President Kennedy and his brother, US attorney general Robert Kennedy. Though the Kennedys had been sympathetic to King and his cause, Hoover convinced them that he was a threat. Reluctantly, the attorney general authorized wiretapping.
When their wiretaps and bugging devices picked up sexual improprieties, the FBI took advantage of this lucky break and upped the pressure on King with character assassination, psychological warfare, and extortion. But the media declined to report the bureau’s dirt (not likely these days), and Hoover and his agents could not turn King’s allies against him. Chief among the latter was President Lyndon Johnson, who had spearheaded the passage of such landmark (and now endangered) legislation as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
But Johnson was also committed to escalating the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam. King did not speak out against the president’s policies until 1967, when he read an article on grievous suffering of Vietnamese children. He condemned the conflict, arousing the president’s enmity.
Hoover was then unleashed. FBI surveillance teams followed King until the very end. They were there at the Memphis motel when King was shot. They did not intervene.
“MLK/FBI” screens at the Brattle Theatre on Jan. 17 at 1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. Go to brattlefilm.org/movies/mlk-fbi.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.