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Martin Luther King’s Dangerous Friendship

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.

Most Jews, though generally familiar with, and proud of, the Jewish role in the Civil Rights Movement, remain unaware of Levison’s daring involvement in the life of Martin Luther King. One prominent rabbi has asserted that Levison wore “a spiritual yarmulke” via his social activism — a rather exaggerated assertion. Levison was at best a cultural Jew and essentially atheist.

When he died alone in his New York apartment at the age of 67 in 1979, Coretta Scott King declared that he was “one of my husband’s loyal and supportive friends whose contributions to the labor, civil rights, and peace movements are relatively unknown.”

Levison was indeed a fundraiser and publicist for the Communist Party USA in the late 1940s, but he had gradually severed his ties with the party as the harsh reality of the Soviet Union became more evident. Meanwhile, no connection has ever been established between MLK and the Communist Party USA, even though the implication of it by the FBI seriously complicated the relationship between King and the Kennedy brothers both before and after Kennedy’s presidency.

The predicament was that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover harassed the Jewish attorney relentlessly, adamant that Levison was the radioactive link between King and communism. An uncommon alliance between a Jew and an African-American thus became a dangerous friendship — and remains, sorrowfully, a mystery

In his lifetime, Levison quietly forged a link between the civil rights crusade and the labor movement. It remains the hallmark partnership of American social justice. He was a Marxist who owned some of the original and largest car dealerships in the United States, maintained huge investments in corporate real estate and was referred to by Hoover as “the Mr. X” who infiltrated and saturated King’s work with Communists.

Hoover and others who were cynically interested in monitoring or even shutting down King’s efforts — including, for a time, Robert F. Kennedy — just weren’t able to prove any ongoing connection between Levison and the Communist Party USA, even though they wiretapped, tracked and subpoenaed Levison while he counseled, raised funds for, ghostwrote articles and speeches for, did the accounting of and sometimes bailed out King between 1955 and 1968, when the preacher was murdered. This remains one of the greatest examples of callous government overreach in the 20th century.

Unfortunately, the surveillance of Levison while he was associated with King inadvertently revealed some of King’s human flaws, including his philandering, and also exposed some of the social radicalism of his other supporters (one of whom was Harry Belafonte). In this environment, the relationship between this Jew from New York and this pastor from Atlanta became a dangerous friendship.

The ripples of this perilous alliance started at the White House and spread to Manhattan’s Upper West Side and then to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, Alabama.

There is no doubt that Levison, a onetime treasurer of the American Jewish Congress, had been a full-blooded Marxist for much of his life. He was a man of moral seriousness and authentic activism. He was not unlike many American Jews of that era, some of whom were blacklisted, defamed or downright ruined because of their constitutionally protected political beliefs.

His name is occasionally whispered at conclaves of aging black civil rights leaders: “Yes, Stanley — remember how much Martin loved him and depended upon him?” They recall the “Bloody Sunday” march across the bridge at Selma, the manner in which King improvised the unforgettable closing of the “I Have a Dream” speech (the original draft co-written by Levison and Clarence Jones) and how they were proved wrong when they begged King not to publicly dissent on the Vietnam War, as he did in 1967.

They talk about those gilded days, and how this one cajoled Martin and that one disappointed him. But they make no further mention of Levison, and one cannot help but wonder why. One cannot help but ponder the fact that Levison was the only white man in that small coterie of advisers and counselors and attorneys who truly influenced King and kept his movement afloat.

The Jewish embrace of the civil rights movement can no longer be just a historical wave to the many rabbis who marched with King; it certainly must include the martyrdom of Jewish idealists murdered in Mississippi and elsewhere. Its history remains an incomplete sentence without the name of one Stanley David Levison.

Ben Kamin is the author of “Dangerous Friendship: Stanley Levison, Martin Luther King Jr., and The Kennedy Brothers.” (Michigan State University Press)

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