In 1956 Stanley Levison, a Jewish attorney from New York, began raising funds to support the Montgomery bus boycott and became acquainted with Martin Luther King, Jr. The two men developed a close relationship in which Levison not only advised King, but also aided him with the day-to-day administrative demands of the movement. In 1963, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) used King’s relationship with Levison, who they believed to be a Communist functionary, to justify surveillance of King.
Born in New York City on 2 May 1912, Levison studied at the University of Michigan, Columbia University, and the New School for Social Research before earning two law degrees from St. John’s University. As treasurer of the Manhattan branch of the American Jewish Congress, Levison became a champion of left-wing causes and supported the defense of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and the campaign against the McCarran Internal Security Act. In the early 1950s the FBI considered Levison to be a major financial coordinator for the Communist Party in the United States and began to monitor his activities.
In the mid-1950s Levison turned his attention to the civil rights struggle. In 1956 Levison, Bayard Rustin, and Ella Baker created In Friendship, an organization that raised money for southern civil rights activists and organizations, including the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). Together they formulated the concept of a regional “Congress of organizations” dedicated to mass action grounded in nonviolence, an idea that would later develop into the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) (Papers 3:491).
Throughout King’s career, Levison drafted articles and speeches for him, prepared King’s tax returns, and raised funds for SCLC. In 1958 Levison helped King edit Stride Toward Freedom and secured a book contract with Harper & Brothers. In almost all instances, he performed these services without compensation. When King offered payment, Levison refused. “My skills,” he wrote King, “were acquired not only in a cloistered academic environment, but also in the commercial jungle … I looked forward to the time when I could use these skills not for myself but for socially constructive ends. The liberation struggle is the most positive and rewarding area of work anyone could experience” (Papers 5:103).
The FBI’s interest in Levison was suddenly rekindled in 1959, when the bureau learned of Levison’s connection with King and the movement. FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover believed that Levison was a Communist agent, and that through Levison international communism influenced King’s actions. He brought this concern to the attention of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and Harris Wofford was enlisted by the Kennedy administration to warn King to end his relationship with Levison. Unwilling to lose a trusted advisor because of vague allegations, King refused to act on the administration’s request for over a year. In March 1962 Robert Kennedy authorized the FBI to begin electronic surveillance of Levison, including his contact with King.
Just before a 22 June 1963 White House meeting with civil rights leaders, Burke Marshall and Robert Kennedy separately repeated the warning to King, and this time included a recommendation to also fire Jack O’Dell. King demurred and requested proof of Levison’s threat to national security. After the meeting President John F. Kennedy took King aside and repeated the request that he ban Levison and O’Dell directly.
Over the next months King debated how to handle the requests to cease contact with Levison. Levison, however, valued the administration’s support for the movement and took the initiative to cut off all visible ties with King. He continued to advise King on important matters indirectly, often using Clarence Jones as an intermediary. In October 1963, evidence of the ongoing relationship helped convince Robert Kennedy to approve wiretaps in King’s home and office.
Throughout the 1960s, Levison continued to lend King practical and moral support. Following the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965, Levison wrote King: “For the first time, whites and Negroes from all over the nation physically joined the struggle in a pilgrimage to the deep south.” For Levison, Selma was a turning point in King’s status as a leader: “It made you one of the most powerful figures in the country—a leader now not merely of Negroes, but of millions of whites” (Levison, 7 April 1965).
In early 1967, when King became determined to participate in a public denunciation of the Vietnam War organized by Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam, Levison counseled him to refrain. Levison felt that King’s planned speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” was unbalanced and would have disastrous consequences to SCLC’s fundraising campaign and King’s personal prestige.
A year after publicly speaking out against the Vietnam War, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Andrew Young, another of King’s trusted advisors, called Levison a few hours afterward to tell him the news. Young wrote in his autobiography that “Martin had confided in Stan his worries and doubts and hopes ever since Montgomery and had defied the FBI and the president of the United States for their friendship. I knew he … would want to hear from one of us personally” (Young, 467).
After a long battle with diabetes and cancer, Levison died at his home in New York City in 1979. Upon hearing of his death, Coretta Scott King called him “one of my husband’s loyal and supportive friends” whose “contributions to the labor, civil rights, and peace movements” are relatively unknown (“Civil Rights Strategist”).
Branch, Parting the Waters, 1989.
“Civil Rights Strategist S. D. Levison Dies,” Los Angeles Times, 17 September 1979.
Friedman, What Went Wrong?, 1995.
Garrow, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr., 1981.
Levine, Bayard Rustin, 2000.
Levison to King, 8 January 1959, in Papers 5:103–104.
Levison to King, 7 April 1965, MCMLK-RWWL.
Rustin to King, 23 December 1956, in Papers 3:491–494.
Senate Select Committee, Book III: Supplementary Detailed Staff Reports on Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans, 94th Cong., 2d sess., 1976, S. Rep. 94-755.
Theoharis, ed., From the Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover, 1991.
Young, An Easy Burden, 1996.