“MLK/FBI” and “Her Socialist Smile” Desanitize Two Radical Icons

January 18, 2021   •   By Eileen G’Sell

[W]E MUST ASK the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” […] When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society … 

It cannot be unreasonable to demand […] an honest wage for all. […] Until the spirit of love for our fellowmen, regardless of race, color or creed, shall fill the world, making real in our lives and our deeds the actuality of human brotherhood — until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained.

In cadence and content, the preceding battle cries — railing against economic oppression, renouncing the myth of class mobility — could easily hail from the same speaker. But the first belongs to Martin Luther King Jr., as part of his 1967 speech at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, while the second comes from Helen Keller’s treatise “An Appeal to Reason,” as part of her 1913 collection Out of the Dark: Essays, Letters, and Addresses on Physical and Social Vision that defends the rights of workers, the disabled, and others pushed to the margins of society. Blandly (if not erroneously) described by Google Books as “celebrating Helen Keller’s triumph over the double handicap of deafness and blindness,” the volume offers her own story primarily as a means of championing political ideas that would mark her a firebrand now just as much as, if not more than, 1913.

This past year, two veteran documentary filmmakers have each devoted a feature to these American icons: Sam Pollard with MLK/FBI, which came out on January 15, and John Gianvito with Her Socialist Smile, which debuted at the New York Film Festival in September. Both docs eagerly upend the anodyne version of these figures, along with today’s often tenuous grasp on their respective historic periods. Based on the book by David Garrow on J. Edgar Hoover’s obsessive surveillance of King in the 1960s, MLK/FBI casts the civil rights leader as less a saintly martyr than a brilliant, savvy, fallible human hounded by the US government. Her Socialist Smile liberates Keller from wholesome poster child status, revealing her rise as political rebel and quippy contrarian.

And what key belief did the pair share that mainstream culture has banished to the footnotes? To put it bluntly: capitalism is bad. Per usual when it comes to US history, Americans cling to the fuzziest, most seemingly innocuous tenets of our heroes, be it King’s embrace of nonviolence or Keller’s ability to transcend her dual disabilities. In so many ways, across so many eras, this selective amnesia reveals the extent to which sentimental, individualist narratives of Americans who “triumph over adversity” anchor our nation’s sense of self. 

In reality, Keller and King — bona fide American radicals whose complexity and depth have been oft reduced to happy-clappy pablum — were, in their own times, repeatedly denounced for presumed, and actual, socialist associations. Keller’s socialism, beginning with her radicalization in the early 1900s, was more overt, demonstrated in any number of public lectures, leaflets, and published manuscripts. (Yet, somehow The Miracle Worker doesn’t feature Patty Duke at a workers’ rally…) Like King, Keller was, in her later years, trailed by the FBI, and her friends were hunted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. King and Keller both advocated for nonviolent protest, approaching their struggle against racial and ableist oppression as of a piece with achieving larger systemic and economic justice. Sometimes, this meant breaking ranks with former allies and established powers; for King, this meant dissenting from the NAACP when he renounced the Vietnam War, and for Keller, risking her rep with the American Foundation for the Blind, who was none too pleased with its mascot’s unorthodox political leanings. “I don’t give a damn about the semi radicals,” Keller said in 1916, in an interview for the New York Tribune on why she joined the Industrial Workers of the World. The Socialist Party was, for her taste, evidently “too slow.”

MLK/FBI doesn’t directly explore King’s socialist sympathies, but it does expose just how damning any affiliation with the Communist Party could be for those in the public eye, especially Black Americans in the 1960s. The economic philosophy that had found, in Keller’s time, significant political expression (in 1914, the Socialist Party counted 100,000 official members), by midcentury could get one wiretapped, followed, or called to court. MLK/FBI launches with a rousing montage of classic Civil Rights movement footage, King being pronounced “the moral leader of our nation” by activist (and socialist) A. Philip Randolph on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. A still image of King orating at a church, fist raised over the pulpit, mouth open wide, shifts into a dark frame and the whir of a copy machine. Slowly, the first pages of the FBI’s “Main File” appear, eerily illuminated by the xerographic sweep of a halogen lamp. “When you construct a man as a great man, there’s nothing almost more satisfying than also seeing him represented as the opposite,” says historian Donna Murch in voice-over, preceding an illustrious, if eclectic, audio-only roster of talking heads: Civil Rights activists Clarence Jones and Andrew Young; historians David Garrow and Beverly Gage; and former FBI director James Comey. Each lends a distinct angle on the Red Scare crucible and its intersections with paranoia over racial unrest.

A few minutes later, after another montage of the March on Washington, a second FBI document appears onscreen: an August 30, 1963, memorandum titled “Communist Party, USA, Negro Question.” It directly compares King to Fidel Castro, the March to the kind of collective reckoning that fomented the Cuban Revolution: “[O]ne can’t ignore […] King having […] an infinitesimal effect on the efforts to exploit the American Negro by the Communists. […] We must mark him now […] as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.”

To be sure, King was not a communist; his economic priorities more closely aligned with democratic socialism. “[T]he kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism,” he declared in his 1967 speech “Where Do We Go From Here?”. “It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both.” Pollard doesn’t include this specific excerpt, focusing instead on King’s close relationship with Stanley Levison, a member, or former member, of the Communist Party, in the late ’50s. As Clarence Jones puts it in the film, “Levison was white, was Jewish, was a lawyer, was an unsung hero to the Civil Rights movement, and Dr. King adored him.” For his unwillingness to break ties with Levison — and his false assurance to both Bobby Kennedy, then attorney general, and President Kennedy that he would do so — King paid dearly; wiretapping was approved in 1963.

J. Edgar Hoover’s fixation on King’s communist loyalties swiftly shifted to obsession over the man’s personal, specifically sexual, indiscretions, when he was recorded philandering with a number of women during his cross-country tours. As the film makes clear, the FBI’s lurid interpretations of such activities were at best hyperbolic incursions into King’s privacy, and at worst racially coded fantasies intended to disgrace him as a “sexual degenerate.” While no news outlet would publish accounts of the tapes, by the time King spoke out against Vietnam and was planning the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, his popularity had suffered greatly. Former allies like Lyndon Johnson deemed him an enemy, and King’s national approval was down to 28 percent to Hoover’s 50 percent. “What always fascinates me about J. Edgar Hoover is his fear of the ‘other,’” explained Pollard in a press interview with Jelani Cobb, “the fear that Black people are going to change what America looks like.”

Eclipsed by international fervor for her autobiography The Story of My Life (1903), Keller’s indignation at our nation’s ideological hypocrisy solidified in the 1910s and lingered the rest of her public career. Of the many impassioned statements honored in Her Socialist Smile, her outrage at the rise of Jim Crow following World War II proves among the most cogent. In a 1946 letter to friend and editor Nella Braddy, Keller wrote, “The continued lynchings and other crimes against Negroes, whether in New England or the South, and the unspeakable political exponents of white supremacy, according to all recorded history, augur ill for America’s future.” Other sections of the documentary highlight Keller’s rejection of bourgeois (often racist) feminism and the academic laurels with which she, as “the first deaf-mute to graduate college,” had once been crowned. “Surely we must free men and women together before we can free women,” she said in her 1913 “To an English Woman-Suffragist,” claiming that the rights of the poor must be prioritized over the right of affluent women to vote. When asked by the New York Tribune if “none of this [socialist] knowledge [came from] life at college?” Keller retorted, “College isn’t the place to go for any ideas.”

Wryly entertaining as its protagonist can be, Her Socialist Smile might not cheer everyone: for minutes of dead quiet, dense excerpts of Keller’s prose float onscreen in white sans serif font, followed by incongruous close-ups of burning embers, glistening slugs, or rainbow koi. Interspersed between these blocks of polemic and babbling brooks are black-and-white scenes of contemporary poet Carolyn Forché solemnly delivering Keller’s biographical data from a recording booth. The high point of the film is rare film footage of a middle-aged Keller shuffling across her study while a riot grrrl anthem blares in the background. “I think of her as having a punk ethos,” he said in an interview for the 2020 New York Film Festival. While his doc might be uneven, Gianvito, like Keller, has a good sense of humor, coupled with keen understanding of the power in anachronism.

Gianvito and Pollard faced opposite logistical setbacks in profiling their subjects. For the latter, it was one of narrowing down the overwhelming amount of archival material chronicling both King’s public presence and concomitant surveillance by the FBI; for the former, how to make a film about a subject of whom precious few audio and visual recordings exist. Gianvito spent years trying to get the film made, in part due to a lack of access to documentary footage. Given Keller’s radical political beliefs, the politically moderate American Foundation for the Blind, which owns her visual archive, was reticent to part with footage that would expose the truth about a figure so successfully whitewashed. At the same time, the challenge of making a film with so limited images and sounds is of a piece with Keller’s own sensory experience.

If today it is more comfortable to enshrine Keller for her “miraculous” ability to speak, rather than for what she spoke out on, it also is easy to overlook that the March on Washington was not exclusively “for freedom” but “for jobs,” and that it catalyzed, in Andrew Young’s words, “a Black Southern movement […] that turned into a national and international movement for human rights.” It is false, but gratifying, to believe that King or Keller were earthbound angels who, on their own, changed the course of history — as though a select few individuals change the world by changing the minds and hearts of individuals. Exclusive focus on their power as individuals serves the implicitly neoliberal assumption that discrimination is a matter of personal prejudice, that ending racism or ableism can be separated from overhauling market structures that exceed and abet them both.

“You don’t get to choose how your life will end,” Clarence Jones quotes King as saying during his tumultuous final year. “Your only choice is what you give it for.” Born nearly a half century apart — Keller in Alabama, King in Georgia — they died but two months from each other, at 87 and 39. Following a stroke in 1960, Keller never got to witness firsthand one of her country’s most explosive periods of activism and dissent; she never met King, and she never directly participated in the Civil Rights movement. But to watch MLK/FBI and Her Socialist Smile against each other, the two Christian Southerners seem shockingly similar in character and vision, despite their wildly different temperaments and lived experiences. If anything should inspire us about King and Keller, it should not be their individual genius and tenacity, indisputable as they were, but their volition to direct attention away from their own personal struggles and toward the suffering of the larger whole, a suffering that cannot be willed away by a single person’s bravery or benevolence, but by seismic structural transformation.

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Eileen G’Sell is a poet and culture critic focusing on film, art, and visual culture. Her latest book is Life After Rugby (2018).