Donna Murch
Donna Murch, a Rutgers University-New Brunswick history professor, collaborated with the producer of a new documentary on the FBI's campaign against Martin Luther King.

For Donna Murch, a Rutgers University-New Brunswick history professor, the chance to contribute to Sam Pollard’s new MLK/FBI documentary meant collaborating with her childhood hero, a filmmaker whose documentary Eyes on the Prize helped transform the public’s perception of the civil rights and Black Power movements.

MLK/FBI, directed by Pollard, examines then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s campaign of surveillance and harassment against Martin Luther King Jr. It will premiere Sept. 21 at New York Film Festival.

Pollard interviewed Murch in June about her research on the Black Panther Party; intersections between incarceration, the drug war and Black struggles for equality; and the importance of rigorous historical scholarship to analyze accusations against King. She talked to Rutgers Today about the experience.

Q: How did you come to participate in MLK/FBI?

Sam Pollard’s producer, Benjamin Hedin, reached out to me in response to a June 2019 article I wrote for The Guardian about another historian’s questionable use of unverified, handwritten notes on an FBI summary to call for a reconsideration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s reputation. The FBI document alleged that King was involved in a rape. My article detailed my and other historians’ concerns about the use of this tenuous, unverifiable evidence to make such a sensational claim, especially in light of the FBI’s well-documented efforts to undermine King; Hoover’s open hostility toward the civil rights movement; lack of a recording or transcript to back up the handwritten note; and the fact that most individuals who would have been involved, including the FBI official who directed the King surveillance, have died.

Q: What was it like to work with Pollard?

Working with Sam Pollard is one of the most important things that has ever happened to me. I was in high school when Eyes on the Prize changed the public’s understanding of the civil rights movement. Remember, King was killed in 1968. The documentary came out just two decades later when the civil rights movement was still contested. Strom Thurmond and other arch segregationists were in Congress. Reagan and George H.W. Bush, who in the 1960s had opposed civil rights and voting rights measures, were now in power. Eyes on the Prize did important political work by putting African Americans upfront and center, and talking about the civil rights movement as the struggle. More controversially, it was also about the Black Power movement, which was demonized well through the early 2000s. Pollard’s work played an essential role in changing the political memory of that period. 

Q: How is working on documentaries different than writing works of historical scholarship?

I’ve worked on a few other documentaries, including The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, directed by Stanley Nelson Jr. The core talent of documentarians is to take complex stories and make them completely accessible. During an interview, they will ask you to explain things as if someone is brand new to the topic. Not to dumb it down, but for example to explain who J. Edgar Hoover was rather than just name-dropping him. It’s very different than the way academic writing is done. And it enables documentaries to convey enormous information in a short time, along with the images and sounds that people experience as being alive. I’ve also learned things from my interviews with documentarians. Historians are used to being very specific in the statements they make, but documentarians will ask broader questions that cause you to draw on your expertise in different ways – for example, when Pollard asked me to speculate about the FBI campaign against the Black Panthers and how it related to King.