Dangerous Friendship

Dangerous Friendship: Stanley Levison, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Kennedy Brothers

Ben Kamin
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 268
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.14321/j.ctt7zt9wg
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  • Book Info
    Dangerous Friendship
    Book Description:

    The product of long-concealed FBI surveillance documents,Dangerous Friendshipchronicles a history of Martin Luther King Jr. that the government kept secret from the public for years. The book reveals the story of Stanley Levison, a well-known figure in the Communist Party-USA, who became one of King's closest friends and, effectively, his most trusted adviser. Levison, a Jewish attorney and businessman, became King's pro bono ghostwriter, accountant, fundraiser, and legal adviser. This friendship, however, created many complications for both men. Because of Levison's former ties to the Communist Party, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover launched an obsessive campaign, wiretapping, tracking, and photographing Levison relentlessly. By association, King was labeled as "a Communist and subversive," prompting then-attorney general Robert F. Kennedy to authorize secret surveillance of the civil rights leader. It was this effort that revealed King's sexual philandering and furthered a breakdown of trust between King, Robert F. Kennedy, and eventually President John F. Kennedy. With stunning revelations, this book exposes both the general attitude of the U.S. government toward the privacy rights of American citizens during those difficult years as well as the extent to which King, Levison, and many other freedom workers were hounded by people at the very top of the U.S. security establishment.

    eISBN: 978-1-60917-416-3
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[viii])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [ix]-2)
  3. CHAPTER ONE Cousin Stanley
    (pp. 3-10)

    The elderly gentleman, neatly dressed, with trim beard, round eyeglasses, and the tip of a clean white handkerchief peeking out of his lapel pocket, put down the restaurant luncheon menu. Kindness and the glint of an old Marxist shone from his thickly browed eyes. He projected the slight angst of someone who once had power and knew a lot of people but was at peace that both they—and his dominion—were essentially gone. “I’m ninety-one years old,” said Leon Schwartz, with a gravelly voice and an enunciation clear and coated with northeastern crustiness. “In the days when my cousin...

  4. CHAPTER TWO A Walk in the Rose Garden
    (pp. 11-26)

    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,...

  5. CHAPTER THREE From Far Rockaway to Montgomery
    (pp. 27-38)

    There were still considerably more oaks and elms dotting and shading the stubborn concrete when Stanley Levison was preparing to graduate Far Rockaway High School in Queens, New York, in 1930 than there are today. The huge building on Bay and Twenty-Fifth Street spread imperially between Oceancrest Boulevard and Hartman Lane, bearing its own massive gridiron and track behind the central stone citadel and physical plant. It was cramped for parking space and had sprouted in the middle of a classically patterned, considerably Jewish neighborhood of homogenous middle-class homes with bleak stoops and miniature grass plots.

    Stanley David Levison was...

  6. CHAPTER FOUR The Communist
    (pp. 39-52)

    It should have been a normal trend of thought for the untold thousands of African American soldiers, sailors, and air corpsmen: having served with valor and shed their blood against the forces of the Axis, they aspired to share in the spoils of victory. Black men helped save the world from the fascists, and they distinguished themselves in the war in tandem with their white counterparts. So they assumed they’d come home to equality. They believed that the old way of racial humiliation would now disappear.

    Granted, they fought in segregated units and too often were relegated to inferior or...

  7. CHAPTER FIVE In Friendship
    (pp. 53-66)

    “I just can’t sing a song; it has to be part of my marrow and bones and everything,” Libby Holman, the dark-skinned, exotic, Jewish performer and philanthropist told an interviewer in 1966.¹ Holman, who died five years later, was a particularly fervent, though not widely known, patron of Martin Luther King Jr. and a kindred spirit of Stanley Levison.

    The better-known actor and dancer Clifton Webb gave her the nickname “The Statue of Libby.” Elizabeth Lloyd Holzman was born May 23, 1904, in Cincinnati to a lawyer and stockbroker, Alfred Holzman and his wife Rachel. She was affectionately known as...

  8. CHAPTER SIX Harry Belafonte, Janet Levison, and a Totally Different “Kennedy”
    (pp. 67-82)

    Besides Stanley Levison, another notable person who met Martin Luther King Jr. for the first time in 1956 was Harry Belafonte. King phoned the rising calypso star in New York, and according to Belafonte’s memoirs, said, simply: “You don’t know me, Mr. Belafonte, but my name is Martin Luther King Jr.”

    Belafonte, astonished, replied: “Oh, I know you. Everybody knows you.”

    King’s unpretentiousness was neither unusual nor misplaced. Although he had electrified the Montgomery community with his Holt Street Baptist Church charge to arms regarding the boycott (a presentation for which he had twenty minutes to prepare), been arrested twice,...

  9. CHAPTER SEVEN A Stabbing in Harlem
    (pp. 83-92)

    No one will ever know what actually compelled Izola Ware Curry to take a seven-inch letter opener to Blumstein’s department store on the evening of September 20. Martin Luther King Jr. was signing copies of his first book,Stride Toward Freedom. The book had been largely edited by Stanley Levison—who also negotiated the publishing deal with Harper and Brothers. About fifty people, almost all either black or Jewish, had gathered in the rear of the shoe department where King had been occupying a table and was cheerfully greeting folks and inscribing books. He had been criticized by some for...

  10. CHAPTER EIGHT Stanley Knew Better
    (pp. 93-110)

    The South may have lost the Civil War militarily, but it hardly surrendered psychologically. The firebombing of Reverend Martin Luther King’s house in Montgomery, Alabama, during the bus boycott of 1955–56 was but one of thousands and thousands of incendiary acts, terrors, murders, lynchings, rapes, assaults, intimidations, and criminalities committed by white citizens against black people, individuals and groups, from the formal end of the Confederacy in 1865 through the twentieth century.

    The atmosphere in southern towns and cities, from Biloxi, Mississippi, to Valdosta, Georgia, to Jasper, Alabama, was fluid and perilous—for African Americans and their white sympathizers....

  11. CHAPTER NINE Senator Kennedy Is Calling
    (pp. 111-126)

    Martin Luther King did fear prison—and for good reason. Even if one wasn’t so well known, the dangers were clear for any incarcerated black man or woman in the South. Certainly, many of the African American inmates were criminals; some had done hideous things to members of their own families or communities. Yet prison guards (overwhelmingly white) were merciless and too often were engaged in this line of work to feed their very racial demagogueries and social dysfunctions. Wardens and other corrections officers were clinically engaged in a culturally based pathology that freely permitted the mistreatment, abuse, and murder...

  12. CHAPTER TEN Martin, Stanley, and Clarence
    (pp. 127-142)

    At the end of the day, Martin Luther King Jr. was a preacher, an oratorical wizard, who knew how to play music with people’s emotions. Ironically, he hadn’t spent a lot of time as a child and teenager, very much in the looming shadow of his father at Ebenezer, fancying himself as a pastor. His vast intellectual curiosity, his embracing of philosophers and ideas, generally led him to think of himself as a future campus professor or even the president of a college.

    He may have truly discovered his own pulpit powers—and may have been entrapped by them—that...

  13. CHAPTER ELEVEN I Am Not Now and Never Have Been a Member of the Communist Party
    (pp. 143-156)

    Martin Luther King Jr. may have used the phrase “our friend,” referring to Stanley Levison, for the first time on November 28, 1962. He dictated a letter from Atlanta to Clarence Jones, in care of the Gandhi Society for Human Rights on Fifth Avenue in New York City. (The Gandhi Society was a somewhat short-lived institute for nonviolence that Jones oversaw. It did not raise much money and was overhauled by 1965 in order to acquire tax-exempt status.)

    “Dear Clarence,” wrote King. The editor of a publication calledThe Nationhad solicited King to prepare a commentary, he reported. It...

  14. CHAPTER TWELVE I Have a Dream Today
    (pp. 157-168)

    The year 1963 was one that both lifted and trounced human souls. With prophetic irony, the heralded musicalCamelotclosed at New York’s Majestic Theater on January 5 after 873 performances. The term “Camelot,” implying a short-lived dream, would come to pertain to the Kennedy presidency just months after his assassination in Dallas in November. George C. Wallace was sworn in as governor of Alabama. Taking the oath of office on January 14, he declared, “Segregation now; segregation tomorrow; segregation forever!”

    Nikita S. Khrushchev, who shook the Marxist world at the 1956 Twentieth Party Congress, and now often dismissed John...

  15. CHAPTER THIRTEEN The Same Thing Is Going to Happen to Me
    (pp. 169-180)

    The euphoria of the Birmingham victory, the “I Have a Dream” coup, and the Kennedys’ warm and fancy reception for King and the others at the White House was short-lived. August gave way to September, and Klansmen were making plans in Alabama to retaliate and break the hearts of innocent families.

    September 15, 1963: just three weeks after the March on Washington, the nation was rocked by the ghoulish bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church—one of the original acts of domestic terrorism perpetrated by Americans against Americans. Known members of the Ku Klux Klan planted nineteen sticks of...

  16. CHAPTER FOURTEEN Lyndon Johnson, Ping-Pong, and Bobby’s Transformation
    (pp. 181-192)

    Lyndon Johnson had both disdained the Kennedys and wished desperately to please them. The unremitting social snubbing they afforded the vice president was incalculably more pronounced than what the Kennedys saved for Martin Luther King Jr. King, a Negro leader and an inconvenient outsider whose agenda kept confounding the administration, was nonetheless not part of the administration. John Kennedy had chosen Johnson as his running mate in 1960 after a bitter fight with him for the presidential nomination—specifically to secure the electoral votes of Texas and help deliver other parts of the South. Then, in office, he and Robert...

  17. CHAPTER FIFTEEN Selma, Vietnam, and the Gathering Shadows
    (pp. 193-210)

    King and the sclc leadership were churning about two very different settings as Lyndon Johnson settled into the White House and the cherry blossoms bloomed in Washington. On one hand, a civil rights bill, truly historic, was to be signed at some time soon and King was invited to be present at the White House for the occasion. On the other hand, Klansmen and their adherents, including members of the local police force, were assaulting and terrifying African Americans in the city of St. Augustine, Florida, at an unprecedented and appalling level.

    King decided he had to go there—certainly...

  18. CHAPTER SIXTEEN Bobby Prays in Indianapolis; Stanley Weeps in Atlanta
    (pp. 211-224)

    “Is it certain that he was killed?” asked presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, as a misty dusk settled over the predominantly black section of Indianapolis on April 4, 1968.¹ Kennedy had proclaimed his entry for the Democratic presidential nomination just a few weeks earlier—as an antiwar candidate, as an advocate for the economic liberation of the nation’s destitute, as another alternative to the incumbent and besieged President Johnson. If Martin Luther King had a disagreement with Johnson about social policy and the Vietnam War, Robert Kennedy loathed Johnson personally and always had. The state of the world, the plight...

  19. AFTERWORD. Negroes Will Not Return to Passivity
    (pp. 225-230)

    In May 1967, just a month after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his now-acclaimed but at that time scorned speech against the Vietnam War, Stanley Levison sat down at his old Olivetti typewriter, lit a cigarette, adjusted his glasses, and began a personal exposition about his compassion for black Americans. He lamented their very place in the American narrative and the lack of black history that could be found in books and literature.

    He began: “A recurring criticism Negroes justifiably make of the publishing industry is the paucity of books on Negro history and the appalling distortions that mar most...

  20. Notes
    (pp. 231-240)
  21. Sources
    (pp. 241-246)
  22. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 247-248)
  23. Index
    (pp. 249-256)