Stanley Levison: Quiet Underwriter of the Civil Rights Movement

Stanley Levison was one of Martin Luther King’s closest advisors and friends, but their association put strain on the entire Civil Rights movement.

  • The Lincoln Memorial
    100 years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Stanley Levison and Martin Luther King helped build the Civil Rights movement.
    Photo by Fotolia/jay clark
  • Dangerous Friendship
    “Dangerous Friendship” by Ben Kamin chronicles a history of Martin Luther King that the government kept secret from the public for years, including his close association with Stanley Levison.
    Cover courtesy Michigan Stater University Press

  • The Lincoln Memorial
  • Dangerous Friendship

Ben Kamin offers a fascinating look at the complex relationships among four men who were pivotal in changing American history in Dangerous Friendship (Michigan State University Press, 2014). In an era characterized by overwhelming fear of both Communism and racial integration, Stanley Levison and Martin Luther King helped build the Civil Rights movement; Robert F. Kennedy and John F. Kennedy were both integral to the movement and unwilling to become involved in the volatile “Negro issue” until it became politically expedient. In this excerpt from “A Walk in the Rose Garden” Kamin introduces the situation in the capital during the summer of 1963.

JUNE 22, 1963

Robert F. Kennedy was in a foul mood. It was a calm summer day—the cherry blossoms had receded into the blooming magnolias and orchids and the occasional, heartening smells of rosemary and mint. The irises, peonies, sugar maples, and Virginia pines absorbed the alternating interludes of sunshine and sudden thunderstorms. At the White House, the climate also staggered between talk of confidence and bursts of stress. The 1964 reelection campaign for President John F. Kennedy seemed hopeful but was again confounded by the storm clouds of Martin Luther King Jr. and the “Negro issue” in the South.

Robert Kennedy, the attorney general of the United States, had been vexed by King and his southern integration campaigns for years. It was not that RFK was viscerally opposed to what King and his allies were doing. The problem was that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and specifically its tyrannical director, J. Edgar Hoover, were out to vilify King and prove that the preacher was some kind of Communist subversive. This caused problems for the Kennedy brothers because if they thought of helping King, the volatile FBI director could retaliate with the release of information about the president’s unrelenting womanizing—or other sensitive matters that might humiliate the Kennedys. Hoover had wiretaps, informants, and guns. He also effectively had more muscle and endurance than most presidents.

But the question of King and his civil rights movement presented quandaries for the Kennedys beyond J. Edgar Hoover. The young president, who had defeated Richard M. Nixon in 1960 by a meager 100,000 popular votes, did not exactly enjoy a mandate, and JFK now sought a convincing and resounding reelection in 1964. After watching the television newsreels of black schoolchildren and adults being fire-hosed by Birmingham security, he began to be moved by the African American struggle for integration—though he remained cautious. In a landmark televised address to the nation on June 11, JFK for the first time spoke unequivocally about the human rights gap between white and black Americans: “The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” However, this is was the very first time that Kennedy had actually spoken publicly about the plight of black Americans.

However, Kennedy needed to carry the South in order to defeat the likely Republican nominee, arch-conservative senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Southern blacks were not empowered to vote yet and whites, incited by King’s freedom campaigns in Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia, were in no mood to support a president with sympathies for King’s work.

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