Martin Luther King's Dangerous Friendship

How MLK Became Buddies With a Jewish Businessman

One of His Best Friends: Stanley David Levison with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Courtesy of ben kamin
One of His Best Friends: Stanley David Levison with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

By Ben Kamin

Published August 19, 2014.

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 46 years ago while standing on the balcony outside room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 39. In his short lifetime, King collected a cadre of loyal and fervent friends and colleagues. The majority of them, including the reverends Ralph David Abernathy, Andrew Young, John Lewis and Jesse Jackson, were African Americans.

A notable exception to this list was a white, Jewish attorney and businessman named Stanley David Levison. In recent years, a flow of released documents, some available through the Freedom of Information Act, are revealing not only Levison’s remarkable influence on King, but also the unrelenting surveillance and wiretapping of both men by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI.

Hoover’s obsession with Levison was driven by his conviction that Levison was an unrepentant Communist; the resulting scrutiny of King and others close to him inadvertently disclosed King’s lively sexual adventures, which only intensified the FBI’s loathing of and concentration on the preacher — and caused both President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to regard King with significant suspicion.

Despite some 70,000 documents filed, redacted and sealed, the government of the United States never produced a shred of evidence that Levison was still a member of the Communist Party USA by the time he first met King, in 1956.

On the afternoon of June 22, 1963, President Kennedy, anxious about Southern support for his 1964 re-election, called King to the White House. The president pulled the preacher into the open air of the Rose Garden (even Kennedy was worried about hidden microphones). Kennedy stunned King by stating that his administration could not support a civil rights bill if Communists tainted King’s movement. “Get rid of Levison,” he ordered. (Kennedy also demanded the removal of a second King aide, Jack O’Dell.)

In the motion picture “J. Edgar,” directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, there is a key scene early on: Hoover, played by DiCaprio, confronts Robert Kennedy, played by Jeffrey Donovan, asking him, “Do you know about a man named Stanley Levison?” Levison was also portrayed briefly in a Broadway play about President Lyndon B. Johnson, “All The Way.”

Despite the fact that Levison was King’s pro bono accountant, counsel, editor, book agent, occasional ghostwriter and constant fundraiser, his story has remained largely and strangely cryptic, unrecognized and unacknowledged.

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