The inconvenient man
The Jerusalem Post, January 26, 2006
by Samuel G. Freedman
No time of the year encourages more self-congratulation among American Jews than does midwinter. On the third Monday of each January, the United States celebrates the federal holiday commemorating the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The entirety of February is formally designated Black History Month. Both events serve as occasions for Jews to rhapsodize about their role, both actual and exaggerated, in the Civil Rights Movement.
From temple to synagogue, JCC to Hillel center to Jewish museum, communal institutions sponsor conferences, speeches and ceremonies to recall the alliance between Jews and African-Americans. The standard heroes of this narrative start with Abraham Joshua Heschel, the theologian and social activist who indeed marched beside King on many occasions, as well as labor-union leader David Dubinsky and pulpit rabbis including Arthur Lelyveld and Jacob Rothschild.
To believe all the sentimental back-slapping, one might imagine that all six million of America's Jews were assembled there in front of the Lincoln Memorial when King delivered his "I Have A Dream" address in August 1963. Never mind that history tells us that some 250,000 spectators heard King, and that the vast majority were black and Christian. Nostalgia and revisionism surrender to no logic, especially in a nation where all but the most rabid right-winger these days likes to claim King in death as he never was claimed in life.
All this ballyhoo ignores the one American Jew who most deserves to be remembered - Stanley David Levison, the inconvenient man. For more than a decade, from the immediate aftermath of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956 to King's assassination in 1968, Levison was, as historian Taylor Branch puts it in his authoritative account, Parting The Waters, "King's closest white friend, and the most reliable colleague of his life."
ALMOST FROM the day Levison first heard the young Baptist minister preach at a rally in Baltimore, he served as fund-raiser, strategist, ghost-writer, confidant, and even, in one of the ultimate acts of the Yiddishe kup, income-tax accountant. Levison helped devise the idea for the coalition of black clerics that became the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; he assisted King in drafting his address accepting the Nobel Peace Prize; he played an instrumental advisory role in King's pivotal decision to publicly oppose the Vietnam War - a stance that cracked the political and moral partnership between King and president Lyndon Johnson.
The finest books about King and his movement, those by Branch, David Garrow and Nick Kotz, make ample reference to Levison. To the larger American public, however, he has essentially vanished. The reason for his invisibility is the same reason he can be so precisely described by historians: As a suspected Communist, Levison was under incessant surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI for decades.
Hoover's campaign of rumor, innuendo and character assassination against King basically relied on two prongs. One was his wiretapping of King during extramarital sexual assignations. The other was his unfounded contention that Stanley Levison was the link between King and international Communism. To this day, one can find fevered imaginings of Levison's purported perfidy brandished on Web sites with the titles "Martin Luther King, Jr. Traitor' and "Abolish the King holiday."
THE TRUTH is that Levison typified an American Jewish leftie of his era - very much including the fact that he made his money as a capitalist, practicing law, investing in real estate, and operating a Ford dealership. The truth also is that, so far as the historical record reveals, Levison was not a communist agent or party member while closely tied to King.
Prior to meeting King, Levison had devoted his passions (and thousands of dollars) to such causes as the Rosenberg case, goals that involved the Communist Party, various front groups, and a large number of liberal, idealistic individuals, however naive we may judge them in hindsight. As historians such as Kotz, Branch and Garrow have parsed the record, Levison had parted ways with the party or its fellow-traveling spinoffs by the time he first encountered King.
The civil rights movement, after all, was gathering momentum at exactly the time the Soviet empire was alienating American Marxists both with Nikita Krushchev's "secret speech" about Stalinist excesses and the Russian invasion putting down the Hungarian Revolution. The scales fell from many eyes besides Levison's. In 1960, as Kotz points out in the book Judgment Days, the FBI actually tried to recruit Levison as an informant.
None of these facts evidently mattered two years later, when Hoover learned of Levison's advisory role with King. Stimulated by Hoover's leaks, Robert Kennedy as attorney-general ordered wiretaps of Levison's home and office, and president John F. Kennedy personally took King aside to warn him about continued association with Levison.
The civil rights leader did cut official ties to Levison, but kept him as a confidential aide. Lyndon Johnson, during his years in the White House, deftly finessed Hoover, pumping him for (dis)information about King while not following JFK's cowardly example in acting on it. The FBI, not to be deterred, kept spying on Levison even after King's murder. A set of its reports, acquired under the Freedom of Information Act and posted on the Internet, runs upward of 11,000 pages.
Levison died in 1979, just 67 years old. In The New York Times obituary, consigned to page B8, King's aide Andrew Young said of Levison: "Of all the unknown supporters of the civil rights movement, he was perhaps the most important."
The operative word, of course, is not important but unknown. And if that adjective was justified in 1979, then what term for undeserved obscurity applies now, 27 years later?