A Communist as a Friend

In one of the blurbs for Ben Kamin’s book, Dangerous Friendship: Stanley Levison, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Kennedy Brothers, Hamilton Sides writes “Kamin continues his keen yet loving exploration into little-known aspects of King’s life and legacy.” While the comment is certainly true, it is important to explain further that similar to his previous books, Ben Kamin provides us with the human stories that surrounded both Martin Luther King’s “life and his legacy.” In addition, Dangerous Friendship is a much more difficult book to construct than the author’s earlier ventures. In this book, Kamin again uses personal interviews, prior interviews, and primary and secondary sources. However, the literature on the Kennedy’s has already been saturated with both the personal and the political. Yet, Kamin is able to re-state their relationship with MLK regarding Stanley Levison with new vitality.

danfriend_DVThe real struggle is writing on Stanley Levison—a man who lived his life so that there would be no future profiles. In 2009, I sent out feelers about possibly writing a book on Levison, who people on the left knew as MLK’s confidante. I spoke first to one of King’s biographers, Taylor Branch, who informed me that it would be very difficult because Levison left no archival material. He further told me that Levison’s FBI files were of little value. With that he suggested that I contact Levison’s son, Andrew. Both phone calls were educational, but Andrew’s comments discouraged me even more about pursuing research on his father. Ben Kamin, however, with a dearth of materials, has provided us with the beginnings of an understanding of Stanley Levison’s importance to the civil rights movement in the United States.

Kamin again writes gracefully and you feel a personal connection to Martin and Stanley on every page of the book. Both Taylor Branch and Andrew Levison were among Kamin’s sources, but the book comes alive with prior quotes from Harry Belafonte and the personal conversations that Kamin was privileged to have with civil rights lawyer, Clarence Jones.

The big public issue of the King-Levison friendship and camaraderie was of course that Stanley Levison was a member of the Communist Party until the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the outing of Stalin by Khrushchev in 1956. Levison didn’t know Martin Luther King until later that year in the aftermath of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In the early pages of Dangerous Friendship I became rather annoyed with Kamin’s discussion of Levison’s communism. Initial thoughts were that he was belaboring a non-issue. Part of this reaction was my impatience with the recent mean-spirited debate in South Africa on whether Nelson Mandela was or was not a member of the South African Communist Party. An issue in South African struggle history that is totally irrelevant. As I read more in Kamin’s book, I realized that he was more right and I was more wrong. While I still think that debates on whether or not someone was or is a communist are immaterial, J. Edgar Hoover thought that it was crucial and he used Levison’s prior Party affiliation in an attempt to ruin MLK. Thus, the issue was appropriate and even essential for writing Dangerous Friendship. It wouldn’t have mattered to the former head of the FBI whether Levison was actually a communist—everyone was a communist if Hoover declared so. Or as Studs Terkel said, “J. Edgar Hoover had a lifelong suspicion of those who thought the Constitution actually meant something.’’

Kamin writes of Levison denying his communism in his 1962 testimony before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. Levison was disingenuous stating “I am a loyal American and I am not now and never have been a member of the Communist Party.” But what should he have said? In reality, Hoover decided in his own mind who was a communist—and it didn’t matter whether or not you said you were or were not a member.

More importantly, what Ben Kamin does in his book is show the immeasurable importance of Stanley Levison to Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. In the first pages of the book, Kamin writes:

In his lifetime, Levison quietly forged a link between the civil rights crusade and the labor movement that 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 FBI director J. Edgar Hoover as “the Mr. X” who infiltrated and saturated Dr. King’s work with Communists.

Most of the documentation of Stanley and Martin’s relationship is through the memories of Harry Belafonte and Clarence Jones. Referred to as King’s white friend, Levison guided, comforted, read, wrote, and edited for Martin Luther King and those deeds as well as his financial support for the movement, most specifically King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, were contributions beyond anyone’s possible expectations. Kamin documents Hoover’s wiretaps on Levison and subsequently MLK as well as the John Kennedy ultimatum ordering King to severe his ties to Levison. Throughout this and more important to Dangerous Friendship, is the King-Levison continuing, mostly clandestine, relationship.

Stanley Levison began his participation in the civil rights movement through Bayard Rustin. It was also Rustin who introduced him to Martin Luther King. At various places throughout Dangerous Friendship, Kamin, using the memories of Jones and Belafonte to document both the King-Levison alliance and the lack of historical recognition for Stanley Levison.

Stanley Levison had been so close to Martin King for so long, had corrected the texts of his speeches, done his taxes, edited his books, found him donors and attorneys and bail money, advised him on matters ranging from his sex life to how to criticize American foreign policy, and had effectively edged out Ralph Abernathy as the ultimate confidante. Ralph was Martin’s friend; Stanley was Martin’s conscience. It is notable that in Abernathy’s 1989 autobiography… he mentions Stanley Levison but once in a 600-page document.

Ben Kamin’s book must be read to understand the blending of the political and the personal King-Levison connections listed in the quote as well as in the two men’s lives. He writes so much more than this essay reviews. Just as in any book where one wishes there were more letters and documents, there are some leaps of faith but they are always interesting and lead to further questions about the people and the movement. There is still much to be written on Stanley Levison. Clarence Jones reminded Kamin:

I have been dismayed that the magnitude of Stanley’s contribution, financially and otherwise, to Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, has been diminished, overlooked, or ignored. Not even Harry Belafonte, Harry Wachtel, Bayard Rustin nor I match the depth, quality or 24/7 length and breadth of Stanley’s support of Dr. King. I saw this firsthand.

Ben Kamin has written a graceful, thoughtful, chronological introduction of Stanley Levison. Hopefully, Andrew Levison and others will compliment Stanley Levison’s story in Dangerous Friendship and we will be treated to even further understanding of the man.

Alan Wieder is an oral historian and the author of Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid (Monthly Review Press, 2013) and the forthcoming Studs Terkel: Politics, Culture, But Mostly Conversation. He can be reached at: alanwieder@gmail.com. Read other articles by Alan.