Martin Luther King Jr. was born 84 years ago today, January 15, 1929. He was 39 years old when shot down at the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, 6:01 PM, Thursday, April 4, 1968.
A notable exception in King’s inner and most trusted circle was a white, Jewish attorney named Stanley David Levison.
In his short lifetime, King collected a cadre of loyal and fervent friends and colleagues. The majority of them, including Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Andrew Young, John Lewis, and Jesse Jackson, have been African Americans.
A notable exception to this list of King’s inner and most trusted circle was a white, Jewish attorney and businessman named Stanley David Levison. In recent years, a flurry of released documents, some available through the Freedom of Information Act, are revealing not only Levison’s overwhelming influence on King, but the unrelenting and detrimental 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 John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to regard King with significant suspicion. (In time and in his bereavement for his brother John, Bobby Kennedy became a compassionate advocate for the poor and neglected).
In the 2012 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: “Do you know about a man named Stanley Levison?” At long last, the critical and perilous role played by Levison in the King story is coming to some light.
In spite of the fact that Levison was King’s pro bono accountant, counsel, editor, book agent, occasional ghostwriter, and constant fundraiser, the story of Levison has remained largely and strangely cryptic, unrecognized, and unacknowledged. This is a source of frustration and even anger for some blacks, notably Clarence Jones, King’s personal attorney and Levison’s partner in the civil rights movement. Says Jones, “I have moved from rage to resignation on the way Stanley has been forgotten and ignored by all the other civil rights heroes.”
Most Jews, though generally familiar with and proud of the Jewish role in the civil rights movement, remain unaware of Stanley 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 Levison 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.” Jones repeatedly bemoans the fact that “my beloved Stanley has never been properly exalted for his accomplishments. Without Stanley, Martin Luther King may have never succeeded.”
Stanley Levison was indeed a fund raiser and publicist for the Communist Party—USA in the late 1940s but had severed his ties with the party by the time he met and was enchanted by King in 1956. No connection has ever been established between MLK and the Communist Party even though the implication of it by the FBI seriously complicated the relationship between King and the Kennedy brothers both before after the presidency of JFK.
The predicament was that the draconian FBI director J. Edgar Hoover relentlessly harassed the Jewish attorney, adamant that Levison was the link between Dr. King and communism. An uncommon alliance between a Jew and an African-American thus became a dangerous friendship—and remains, sorrowfully, a mystery.
Ben Kamin, a rabbi and biographer of MLK, is the author of the forthcoming “Dangerous Friendship: Martin Luther King Jr., the Kennedy Brothers, and Stanley Levison.”