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From Stanley D. Levison

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Author: Levison, Stanley D.

Date: October 13, 1960

Location: New York, N.Y.

Genre: Letter

Topic: Martin Luther King, Jr. - Political and Social Views

Voter registration


In this letter concerning SCLC's fund-raising efforts, Levison stresses the importance of King maintaining a nonpartisan position in the 1960 election. Levison also warns him to beware of "heavy pressure" from some of Kennedy's Hollywood supporters who perceive King "as a personality of glamour not as a leader whose responsibilities will continue over decades and through changes of great magnitude."

Dr. Martin L. King
The Ebenezer Baptist Church
407 Auburn Avenue, N.E.
Atlanta, Georgia

Dear Martin,

I hope the conference went well.1 I have a few items which need your attention so that we can move on with some of the projects we've been discussing.

First: I am enclosing a draft of the appeal letter which we will get out shortly. My thought in developing it in this fashion takes advantage of the limited action you staged, in the "Stand-Ins", while not relying on it for the whole emotional appeal.2 The recipient with this approach can feel he is part of the movement because he is in it from the experimental stage to the developmental period. This sense of participation from the beginning is the substitute for the drama we lack at this moment.

Second: I am enclosing a draft of a letter to go to Atty. Clarence Jones.3 He will need it when he reassembles the group of Hollywood lawyers in order to move them from the discussion stage to concrete action. By disclosing your agreement, the urgent need, and the importance of the venture, they can be stimulated to begin planning at once. Beyond this dinner also lies the organization of a permanent support committee which can develop other types of affairs. We have been talking of the practicability of a big mass affair in the spring in the Hollywood Bowl.4 Given the presence on the coast of so many stars such an event should have real possibilities of success. It would attract a different group than a dinner encompassing the great number who can't afford expensive dinner prices.

Third: Sammy Davis Jr., talked to Maya Angelou on the phone yesterday and confirmed arrangements for the January 27th Carnegie Hall affair.5 He said everyone was set. In the same conversation he said he was trying to reach you to have you attend a big rally on the West Coast with him for Kennedy. Here we go again! Maya [Angelou] indicated to him very briefly that you necessarily held to a nonpartisan position, but he said he wanted to talk to you, anyhow. In thinking of the conversation, and taking into account that Sammy is a Negro I think he will understand more than Harrison and Dave Livingston.6 One point might be stressed with Sammy. Since you are concentrating on getting the vote in the south, the effectiveness of your efforts would be diminished if you were identified as an adherent of one party. You can't be as pursuasive to particularly apathetic Negroes, if they feel you are appealing to them as a partisan person who may be seeking to build up voters for his own future candidacy. A long view must be taken which sees that no matter what immediate advantages can be gained by having you speak for one party now, what is lost is a rare leader whose selflessness has been long established and highly prized by the people.

I am not so much concerned that Sammy will not understand as that Sinatra and the others we are counting on will not rise above superfically and grasp the essential points. As we have seen when people get deeply involved with a party's fortunes they sometimes lose perspective; see only that which they want to see.

Sometimes I think these people see you too much as a personality of glamour not as a leader whose responsibilities will continue over decades and through changes of great magnitude. There is probably some identification of themselves with you and though they can come and go, change horses, all as merely an avocation, for you the taking of a position is an immensely important step affecting millions deeply and lastingly. Frank, Sammy and the others are not intellectual leaders nor moral leaders so their decisions can be more easily arrived at without the singular weight that attaches to a decision or stand by you. I mention these thoughts because they may subject you to heavy pressure. I'll be calling you to find out about Friday. Warmest personal regards,

[signed] Stan


1. Levison refers to SCLC's annual conference, held 11-13 October in Shreveport, Louisiana.

2. On 3 October SCLC staged "stand-ins" at the Fulton County registrar's office, which King described as a "pilot project" to determine the "feasibility of a national program of voter registration protest" ("'Stand-Ins' Aim Is Told by Dr. King," Atlanta Daily World, 6 October 1960).

3. In a 13 October letter, Levison thanked Jones and his colleagues for their offer to raise funds for SCLC, describing the "electrifying actions" of student protesters as inspiration for a new initiative to protest for voting rights through "mass non-violent 'stand-ins' at the polling places in the south."

4. On 18 June 1961, the Western Christian Leadership Conference sponsored a Freedom Rally at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, featuring King, Mahalia Jackson, Sammy Davis, Jr., California governor Edmund Brown, and other state and local politicians (Western Christian Leadership Conference, Announcement, Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak at freedom rally, 18 June 1961; see also Maurice Dawkins to King, 27 February 1961).

5. Angelou assisted in the organization of the January 1961 Carnegie Hall "Tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr." Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Tony Bennett, Nipsey Russell, and Jan Murray performed at the tribute (Sara Slack, "'Rat Pack' Raises $35,000 for King," New York Amsterdam News, 4 February 1961). King thanked Davis for his support in a 20 December letter (see pp. 582-583 in this volume).

6. George M. Harrison was the president of the Brotherhood of Railway and Steamship Clerks in Cincinnati and vice president of the AFL-CIO. David Livingston was president of District 65 of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) in New York.

Source: MLKP-MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Boston University, Boston, Mass.

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