FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover tried to erase the name of Stanley Levison from civil rights history in the 1960s. Now historian Ben Kamin is putting Levison firmly back into the historic record with his new book, Dangerous Friendship: Stanley Levison, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Kennedy Brothers.
Levison was a successful Jewish businessman and member of the American Communist Party until 1956, when the Soviet invasion of Hungary left him disillusioned. He refocused his organizing skills, business and labor contacts, energy and intelligence to support the work of Martin Luther King Jr., helping to found, manage and fund King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In the process, Levison became an intimate friend of King and part of the tight circle of confidants who helped develop King’s campaigns and sustain him emotionally.
What drew Levison, and hundreds of other American Jews like me,
Most students of the 1960s may know about the FBI’s obsessive surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. and how the bureau’s shadowing and bugging of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s president would lead federal agents to infiltrate the civil rights and peace movements. Now, a new book by Ben Kamin throws a spotlight on the man whose close friendship and collaboration with King provoked J. Edgar Hoover’s wrath and paranoia. Dangerous Friendship analyzes the relationship between King and Stanley Levison, a lawyer and wealthy businessman with a radical past. The book tells how Levison, known as King’s ghostwriter and closest white friend, advised King on strategy and raised righteous amounts of money for his cause; the story also shows how their friendship prompted the Kennedy White House to force King to shun Levison for more than a year.
Kamin, a nationally known rabbi, also explores how Levison’s personal solidarity with African American struggles reflected a traditional Jewish embrace of equality and social activism.
It really is true what they say – if you’re old enough, you’ll remember where you were when you heard President Kennedy was dead. I was onstage rehearsing a fifth-grade play when a teacher (a jovial Texan who seemed to know everything about the history of Dr. Pepper soda) came into the auditorium with the news. He and my own teacher seemed more fascinated than saddened about what had happened in Dallas, and we kids were just happy to suddenly be sent home early. Outside, yellow maple leaves covered the sidewalks, the fall air was tinged with a slight chill and, as it was a Friday, with the smell of burning papers from our school’s incinerator.
Today, of course, is the 50th anniversary of the assassination and this month has been all about JFK, especially on television, where Kennedy appears to have been rehabilitated as, once more, the man who was on the verge of changing the world.