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New Book Looks At Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'Dangerous Friendship'

January 19, 2015 1:09 p.m.

"Dangerous Friendship: Stanley Levison, Martin Luther King Jr., And The Kennedy Brothers"

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Ben Kamin, author of "Dangerous Friendship"

Related Story: New Book Looks At Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'Dangerous Friendship'

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

Tom Fudge: I am Tom Fudge and you’re listening to Midday Edition.

We all have pictures in our head of the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. But one person that none of us seen or even imagine is a man who was white, a Jew, an atheist and the onetime member of the American Communist Party. He was a confidante of Martin Luther King, he bailed him out of jail, he helped to write his speeches, a rich businessman with many connections, he helped to bankroll the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. His name was Stanley Levison. And his history and his absence from the known history of the Civil Rights Movement is the subject of a new book which is called Dangerous Friendship. The book is written by historian writer and rabbi Ben Kamin who is also a San Diegan, he joins us in studio and thank you very much.

Ben Kamin: It’s my pleasure, thank you. And it’s great to be here on this wonderful national holiday.

Tom Fudge: Who was Stanley Levison?

Ben Kamin: That is the key question that has inspired many, many historians who are aware of Civil Rights Movement and who are rather irked by the fact that for a variety of reasons nobody really knows about him when in fact he had a very, very close relationship as you said a confidante and just a very good friend of Martin King and was in his position to do so because he was really the only white man in that inner circle who advise King all those years.

Tom Fudge: Going back in the question who was Stanley Levison before he met Martin Luther King where did he come from?

Ben Kamin: He came from New York from Queens from Far Rockaway specifically. And many of the folks who came out of that community in the 20s and 30s inclined to become left wing socialists and even communists. They were sympathetic to the Soviet Union, they didn’t know than what they find out later Tom, that in fact the Soviet Union was not a utopia that is dictator Stalin really is a horrifying as Hitler and they were disillusioned and left the movement many of them both the Italians and the Jews who are part of that area, that community by the mid-50s, and Levison was part of that group.

Tom Fudge: He was part of that group but as you say in that time and place becoming a member of the communist party was not unusual, in fact I think I read in your book that the communist party was involved in the very early days in the Civil Rights Movement?

Ben Kamin: Yeah. I like to say and I assert that being a communist in those days in the 30s and 40s was frankly sort of like being a democrat today. It was the liberal wing of the political spectrum, it didn’t have the connotation that grew with it and it was particularly an issue when the McCarty era began and all the communists were labeled as anti-American.

Tom Fudge: There seems to be certain contradictions in the personality of Stanley Levison, he was a Jew and yet he was an atheist.

Ben Kamin: Avidly so.

Tom Fudge: He was communist and yet he was very successful businessman.

Ben Kamin: Right. That was a key contradiction and in fact in their little interplay King and Levison who really were very chummy and close beside the hard work they did King teased him about that and said, here you are an atheist and you are hanging out with me, a Southern Baptist preacher and you are an alleged communist but you made your money selling cars and selling Polish sausage that you import from Poland. They have that kind of relationship but in fact Stanley would say frankly my capitalism allows me to underwrite my belief in the value of social values of the left. And he meant it.

Tom Fudge: And I think you mentioned the fact that he like lot of people who are members the communist party became disillusioned with Soviet Russia.

Ben Kamin: Yes.

Tom Fudge: Was he no longer a communist when he met Martin Luther King?

Ben Kamin: He was not, and that is a critical issue in this story– in this history because J. Edgar Hoover our wonderful historic FBI Director actually knew that. I studied some 70,000 pages of testimony and surveillance tapes at the King Institute at Stanford University in preparation for this book and there is not a shred of evidence written or on tape that in fact denies the reality that Stanley had not only left the party but disparaged it by 55, 56 when he met King primarily because of the [indiscernible] [00:04:31] invasion of Hungary by Soviet tanks in [indiscernible] [00:04:34] and their slaughter of the freedom fighters there. He got the point by then so, no, no he was no longer a communist.

Tom Fudge: When did that happen, by the way the Soviet invasion of Hungary?

Ben Kamin: That was 56.

Tom Fudge: 1956?

Ben Kamin: Yeah, the same year as most of the Montgomery Bus Boycott which was the civil rights event that drew Levison to King which introduced to King by Manning Bayard Rustin a great African-American social activist and has his own issues because he was denounced for being a homosexual and a communist but all these guys worked together but that’s what drew Levison into the movement.

Tom Fudge: My guest is Ben Kamin, he is the author of the new book called Dangerous Friendship: Stanley Levison, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Kennedy Brothers. So they met in approximately 1957?

Ben Kamin: They met in early ‘56 the Montgomery Bus Boycott was just getting underway, King had been recruited by the local preachers to preside over something called the Montgomery Improvement Association mainly because he was new in town. He had left Atlantic to get away from the influence of his father who is a very domineering Daddy King the father and the other black preachers said this young man is a great orator and he hasn’t upset anybody yet and the law doesn’t know about him, let’s make him the president. They had no idea he was great orator and his magnificence and that’s what led him to his prominence.

Tom Fudge: And so Levison was there simply because he shared those political views and was attracted to that event?

Ben Kamin: Levison was there yes, but he actually there was some backroom maneuvering, the same Bayard Rustin knew Levison and brought Levison down to the situation to meet King and to view the boycott because Bayard Rustin shrewdly knew [indiscernible] [00:06:19] was compassion for this movement that Levison had the organizational skills, the fundraising skills, the discipline all of which King lacked. Decidedly King had the passion but Levison had the skills of bring people together and they just happened to click personally so well and they complement each other in a wonderful way and they became profound friends.

Tom Fudge: You know I tried my introduction to describe sort of Levison’s participation in the Civil Rights Movement, how would you describe it, what did they do?

Ben Kamin: It was behind the scenes, he raised money and sometimes that money was used to publicize the movement, to bail King out there was many jail stays. Martin Luther King was in jail a lot and people I think need to stop and think how did he survived that because being a prominent black male, let alone a black male in a southern jail was quiet often lethal, well Stanley and others but Stanley galvanized them got the bail money and got him out of jail. Beyond that he also was a co-writer with a man named Clarence Jones who helped me write this book who was King’s personal attorney, an African-American brilliant man, these two gentlemen drafted King’s speeches, Stanley got King’s book published, he edited them and in some cases did the ghostwriting for his speeches although King generally improvised and was very spontaneous. One of those speeches was the I Have a Dream speech, Stanley was the co-author of the first draft of the I Have a Dream speech and that is largely unheralded.

Tom Fudge: I think in your book you tell a story of how Martin Luther King, I mean a lot of the speech was written beforehand but when he got to the point where he said I Have a Dream it sounds like someone in the crowd inspired him to that part, yeah tell that story.

Ben Kamin: That part was internally extemporized and was written by nobody that came out of the brilliant brain and mind and heart and soul of MLK. Frankly the speech that Clarence Jones and Stanley Levison wrote for King which he used part of fell flat and it was 4:30 in the afternoon, it was 95 degrees, people had heard a lot of speakers and Martin Luther King got up and he was just going nowhere with the speech. So sitting on the dais behind him now only was Clarence Jones, Stanley was not there he was never visible, he was kind of everywhere but nowhere. But Mahalia Jackson was right behind and she knew the speech is going nowhere and she yelled out to Martin, Dr. King put America back in church. And that inspired King to fling the draft to the side and he went in the historic I Have a Dream cadence and lyric that has become part of history.

Tom Fudge: And once again my guest is Ben Kamin. He is author of the new book called Dangerous Friendship about the association between Martin Luther King, Jr. and a man who was very poorly known by historians Stanley Levison. And Stanley Levison was in the background and it sounds like that was by design?

Ben Kamin: Absolutely. He has no ambition to be anything but a friend, he was not a threat to King which many of King’s black colleagues were just because they were ambitions and wanted to be well-known as well.

Tom Fudge: And so maybe partly that was just his ambition what he wanted to do but it sounds like it would have been controversial in more ways than one and if he had been very visible.

Ben Kamin: There is a lot of truth to that. Human nature is what it is. And Stanley understood that their friendship was unique, they usually met privately, they enjoyed cigars together, they smoked cigarettes together, Stanley was a terrible smoker and would actually die of complication of emphysema and cancer about 11 years after the assassination of Dr. King but there is comfort level there because he had an intellect, that King admired and King had a passion for human rights that Stanley just drank in. And so this is the beautiful friendship that was totally colorblind and had no political or staffed hinges associated with it. Stanley was not a member in any official capacity of the SCOC staff, he just there was a friend.

Tom Fudge: And would it, I mean if he had been more in the forefronts would it been controversial because he was white?

Ben Kamin: It’s not improbable to suggest that some of King’s colleagues who are African-American weren’t always completely comfortable with the fact that there was a white person who had King’s ear but I think that’s part of human nature I don’t dismiss it, but I think Stanley didn’t patronize it he got it and he didn’t really care except to be there when Martin needed him.

Tom Fudge: Now it sound like speaking again the fact that he was once communist it sounds like the concerns about Levison or affiliations went right to the top of the American government.

Ben Kamin: Well this is what broke the deals sort to speak and almost brought down the Civil Rights Movement. Frankly synoptically J. Edgar Hoover who had a congenital dislike of King, and I am sure that was driven by racism, knew that Stanley Levison was no longer a member of the communist party but caught on to their friendship and began a smear campaign using surveillance, the placement of propaganda to associate King with Levison and thereby to the communist movement. And he fed that disinformation to both Robert Kennedy the Attorney General and President Kennedy who therefore became very hostile to Levison not necessarily personally but because the association by King with a communist threatened the election campaign that Kennedy hoped to of course then left the seat in ‘64 he lose the southern states because of the communist connections, so he forced King to stop seeing Stanley.

Tom Fudge: Did John F. Kennedy say Levison got to go?

Ben Kamin: Yes, he literally took King out into the Rose Garden because he the President himself afraid of Hoover and he thought that the Rose Garden was one place even his own officers would not be bugged and he told Martin Luther King on June 22, 1963 you need to get rid of Stanley Levison, he is a communist and if you don’t get rid of him I will not support the Civil Rights Bill because I won’t be reelected, and that broke King’s heart.

Tom Fudge: And after that was Stanley Levison out of the movement?

Ben Kamin: Yes or no, he did not communicate directly with King until a couple of years later after Kennedy was assassinated and Johnson was in the Oval Office but what happened was they set up a system whereby this Clarence Jones I’ve mentioned before was a middleman a kind of deep throat so King and Levison would communicate through the telephone of Clarence Jones. Stanley was known as ‘The Friend’ and King was known as ‘The Leader’ and they thought they outsmarted the FBI but it turned out as Clarence told me many times the joke was on Clarence because his phone was tapped and he gotten out word with the FBI so that the secondary relationship was also stillborn because the FBI was still tracking all of them and frankly the entire Civil Rights Movement almost collapsed because of the way that the government pressured and the overreach of the government in this case of privacy.

Tom Fudge: And we are talking about Dangerous Friendship about the association between Stanley Levison and Martin Luther King, Jr. on very appropriately on this national holiday Martin Luther King Day. Ben Kamin, your book does in some ways contradict other histories of the Civil Rights Movement because you talked so much about Stanley Levison. What kind of documentation did you do for your book, who did you talk to?

Ben Kamin: Well, the main person I spoke to over a series of many interviews most of them person at Stanford is Clarence Jones who was alive and well, a very feisty 84 years old. He is a scholar in residence at the King Institute at Stanford and he was looking frankly, and to my great fortune he was looking to see somebody write their story about the man he calls my dear brother Stanley for years and years and years. He decries the fact that history has overlooked Stanley, he complains that Stanley is not mentioned or featured in any exhibits at say the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, beside the Lorraine Motel and generally is not part of the repertory of civil rights confidences and so forth and he and I together are out to try and change that and this moment, this program is in that effort.

Tom Fudge: Well what about some of the FBI eavesdropping, I mean have those documents become available?

Ben Kamin: Yes, they are now available. Some of the things that I assert early on had not been declassified yet but it’s interesting they are highly didactic, I mean it’s just amazing how much is still hidden. In fact the cover of the book, we can’t see on the radio, shows a page and the way things are dicacted so I got access to all of these papers and many, many letters, the letters were not but the FBI files still protect the secrets the government want to protected.

Tom Fudge: I think Ralph Abernathy wrote a memoir and he mentioned Stanley Levison once in the entire book.

Ben Kamin: That’s right, that’s 700 page memoirs.

Tom Fudge: Had there been other historians who have spent at least a little bit of time talking about this guy?

Ben Kamin: Yes, and they and their work had been helpful to me primarily David Garrow and the Taylor Branch, these are the premier historians about the King life story and the Stanley Levison story is told by them, it’s woven into but even not because of lack of effort on their part Dr. King’s life was so nuanced, so complicated, his inner life so ridden with guilt self-contempt and occasional flights of joy and mimicry and that this story just has been also just simply overlooked because this guy didn’t push himself into the limelight. Well, but for this guy I don’t know if Dr. King [indiscernible] [00:16:24] would have been able to have survived some of the trauma he dealt with, he was stabbed at a book signing in 1958 a signing that Stanley arranged and Stanley felt very bad about that obviously, but without Stanley Levison its fundraising, its organization, his contacts, I’m not sure we would have had a Civil Rights Movement because Dr. King could not balance a checkbook, he just couldn’t do it, this guy took care of the business.

Tom Fudge: Well, my guest has been Ben Kamin, he is the author of Dangerous Friendship: Stanley Levison, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Kennedy Brothers. And thank you very much for coming in.

Ben Kamin: It’s my pleasure, thank you.