Stanley Levison: Quiet Underwriter of the Civil Rights Movement

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100 years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Stanley Levison and Martin Luther King helped build the Civil Rights movement.
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“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.

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.

The machinations of politics were fully cranking around the White House, while, in the developing heat of the summer of 1963, blacks were boycotting businesses, integrating lunch counters and busses, protesting for school desegregation, and marching for equal labor rights. They were also being jailed, beaten, raped, kidnapped, shot, and lynched.

All of it was a mess and a headache for Bobby Kennedy—especially today, June 22, because Martin Luther King Jr. was coming to the White House. And Kennedy had a firm message for Dr. King: he had to get rid of perhaps his closest adviser, a Jew named Stanley Levison. Levison was a man with a blank face who wore quiet suits and who would hardly be noticed in a room except by those who believed that he carried secret things in his pockets.

Meanwhile, Levison knew more about Martin Luther King Jr. than any other white person in America. This made other white people anxious, curious, and hostile.

Yet another classified file dated February 2, 1962, had come out of the New York office of the FBI about Stanley David Levison, an attorney and businessman, and onetime Manhattan treasurer of the American Jewish Congress. The sealed document, one of many papers and surveillances gathered by the Bureau concerning Levison since the 1950s, a “leftist” who unquestionably consorted with Communists and other such radicals, included the following declaration:

The NYO [New York Office] makes the following observations:
(1) LEVISON is an Associate Director of the Southern Leadership Conference. KING as head of this organization has been closely associated in the past with LEVISON.
(2) LEVISON’S association with the CPUSA [Communist Party of the USA] is known to but a few individuals within Party circles.

In fact, the name of the ministerial association presided over by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), founded in 1959 by King and several other prominent African American clergymen, with the financial assistance of entertainer Harry Belafonte. The discussions that led to its formation took place in the New York City kitchen of Stanley Levison, the auto dealer and real estate magnate who spent much of his adult life funding, managing, and advising the civil rights movement while acting as MLK’s accountant, counsel, and close friend. King often referred to Levison as one of his “winter soldiers.”

The SCLC emerged in the afterglow of the successful and groundbreaking Montgomery bus boycott, which had efficaciously desegregated the city bus system in that city, and which marked the formal advent of the American civil rights movement. The quest of the SCLC, which consisted of some sixty preachers, was to give an institutional format to the freedom efforts. Its mission was to promote civil, nonviolent protest actions against segregation in the realms of American transportation, education, labor, and housing.

A rabbi who first encountered Levison during the late 1950s, when Levison was abandoning an extended association with the American Communist establishment and completely dedicating himself to King’s movement, reflected with me on the attorney’s turn of heart: “He never said much, and you didn’t even know if he was comfortable with his Jewishness or if that’s what motivated him to work so closely with King. He carried this poignancy for struggling types and, even though he had money, he was searching for something to value. It bothered him that America seemed so largely defined by class. The Communist thing really stalled for him and he realized that it was mostly a falsehood in terms of egalitarianism. It was as if King and Levison were looking for one another. That’s what you thought anyway. Stanley didn’t wax too much about what he was thinking. He had this vast emotional world hidden inside himself. He could have done anything he wanted, backed any cause he chose to back. He swam in conviction when it came to King. He saw a problem and wanted to fix it.”

What was the problem? Fully a hundred years after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, the American South still seething with discrimination, racism, and anti-black violence, King and the SCLC sought equality, social equity, and economic fair play for black people—issues that had never permeated any presidential campaign and that remained profoundly taboo in the oligarchic southern civilization.

Stanley, a soft-spoken, philosophical man with a moderate paunch visible through his cotton dress shirts, stood out as a singular white face among the highly Baptist, black assemblage of the SCLC. “My impression of him,” Rev. C. T. Vivian, a longtime associate of King’s and an organizer of the Selma-Montgomery March of 1965, told me “was that he was brilliant but never really shook off his Communist background.”

The FBI had been monitoring Levison at various levels since his staunch advocating for known CP-USA members Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. In 1953, the couple was executed for treason and espionage—a decision that remains a haunting emblem of both the political hysteria and anti-Semitism of that era. For Levison, their plight symbolized what he viewed as America’s dark, tyrannical side. Their Jewish heritage also punctuated his wrath. He lit a cigarette in his Manhattan apartment and told his twin brother Roy, “It doesn’t matter what the defense said. They looked like us so they were guilty from the start.”

Levison opposed the McCarran Internal Security Act, the legislative tool of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his associates, who conducted massive investigations and defamations of alleged American Communists and “subversives” during the 1950s and promulgated the notorious Red Scare of that period. The act was passed by Congress over the objection—and the veto—of President Harry S. Truman, who called it “mockery of the Bill of Rights” and a “long step toward totalitarianism.” It brought innuendo, paranoia, and a chilling atmosphere of suspicion and distrust into the worlds of Hollywood, publishing, liberally bent politicians, and scientists; it ruined lives, ended friendships, and divided Americans with incendiary jingoism and a visceral anti-Soviet obsession that did not allow for any nuances.

Stanley’s lips curled in exasperation as he considered all these things. He penned letters, placed phone calls, and made recommendations with the efficient gravity of a doctor writing a prescription. His unhappiness took on the form of expectation: What can I do?

Reprinted with permission from Dangerous Friendship: Stanley Levison, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Kennedy Brothers by Ben Kamin and published by Michigan State University Press, 2014.

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