A white Jewish lawyer from New York, Levison probably would have wanted it that way: his interest in the civil rights movement was largely selfless, and associations from his past meant that it was in the best interest of the civil rights movement to pretend that he wasn’t involved.
King and Levison met sometime in 1956. King was just coming off of the successful bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, an episode that made him a sudden star in some circles. One of King’s biographers, David Garrow, said the civil rights leader would come to New York frequently to raise money — and likely stopped in at some fundraisers where Levison was present.
“He had supplicants of all flavors and stripes,” said Garrow, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
Garrow said Levison struck King almost immediately as different from those who wanted to enhance their own stature through close association with a civil rights leader. Levison was in his mid-40s — almost 20 years older than King — and was already comfortably wealthy off of a Ford dealership and a string of Laundromats.
“Levison clearly appealed very powerfully to King as someone with both political and business and financial savvy someone who knew his way around New York,” Garrow said.
Clarence Jones, a black lawyer, began working with King in the early 60s. He said Levison was a man of medium height, with a slight paunch due to lack of exercise. He had glasses, always wore a suit and always had a cigarette in his hand.
“There was hardly ever a time whether it was a restaurant, whether we were sitting in his home,” Jones said. “He was a classic definition of a chain-smoker.”
Jones was at first surprised to find a white man like Levison near the top of the civil rights movement. Then he understood.
“There was nothing that Stanley wanted or needed from Dr. King aside from maybe nourishment of his soul,” Jones said.
The two of them, Jones and Levison, anchored King’s New York operations. They helped King with his speeches. In 1963, they took part in planning the March on Washington.
Andrew Young, who began working for King around that time, said Levison was particularly good at writing fundraising letters.
“I mean he was a craftsman,” Young said. “They were very short declarative sentences.”
But Levison was valued most for his steady mind: “He was one of the most rational and logical people we had and our problem was keeping people from going crazy,” Young said.
It was during the run-up to the 1963 March on Washington that a piece of Levison’s past resurfaced and complicated his involvement. Jones, who has just published a book about the march, “Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed the Nation,” recalled that King and other civil rights leaders gathered at the White House in the summer of that year.
“President Kennedy asked Dr. King to please come out of the meeting and take a walk with him in the Rose Garden,” Jones said, “and said, ‘I have some very bad news for you, some news that is very disturbing.’”
Kennedy said the FBI suspected Levison was a Soviet agent. King wasn’t convinced, and demanded to see proof. (King had received earlier similar warnings from Kennedy’s brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.) But when Levison heard the news, he worried that he’d end up ruining the very movement he was trying to help.
“Stanley’s immediate reaction was, 'You tell Martin that he has to immediately separate himself from me,'” Jones said.
Levison had been under surveillance by the FBI for a decade by that point. Biographer David Garrow said Levison got involved in the Communist Party in the mid-1930s.
“Stan’s role, secret role, with the party, certainly during the late 1940s and early 1950s was as one of the party’s top financial managers,” Garrow said.
Garrow said FBI documents show that Levison left the party in about 1956. The Soviet invasion of Hungary that year disillusioned a lot of American Communists.
“They felt significantly betrayed by the behavior of the Soviet Union relative to what they had thought the ideals of the communist movement were supposed to be,” Garrow said.
Levison had grown up in the Rockaways. He wasn’t religiously observant, but, Garrow said, he identified himself as a Jew. He was active in the American Jewish Congress, whose mailing list he used for much of King’s fundraising.
Jones, the lawyer, said, King knew blacks had to get white Americans on board if his movement would succeed.
“Of that white majority, the most important constituent part of the white majority was the Jewish community,” Jones said.
Many saw in the civil rights movement echoes of the Jewish plight during the Holocaust and ancient Israel.
"There has always been a natural kinship with the Jewish community," Andrew Young said. "I mean the movement was Jewish in the sense that our songs were 'Oh Pharaoh, Let My People Go,' 'Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.'
King and Levison suspected — rightly as it turned out — that Levison’s phones were tapped, and he was under surveillance. So they would pass messages through Clarence Jones, referring to Levison as “our friend.”
“Dr King would say to me, ‘Will you have an opportunity to see and talk with ‘our friend?’” Jones said. “And I would say, ‘Absolutely.’”
King knew that maintaining contact with Levison was politically risky. Newspapers carried occasional stories about the alleged communist infiltration of the movement that tarnished his credibility. But at times, King couldn’t help stop himself.
Garrow said the FBI captured hundreds of conversations between the two men.
“Some of which involve the most mundane aspects of civil rights fundraising others of which involve quite pressing crises, about, what should King say about President Johnson? What should King say about events in Vietnam?” Garrow said.
In the years following King’s assassination in 1968, Levison helped Coretta Scott King establish the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, and he raised money for Andy Young’s congressional races. Levison died in 1979 at the age of 67.
Special Thanks to WNYC Archivist Andy Lanset.
A note on the archival audio: "Let My People Go" is from a record, "Everybody Wants Freedom," issued in by Battle Records. The singers are the Carolina Freedom Fighters, a group of students who participated in civil rights protests in the early 1960s.
King's "I Have a Dream" speech was recorded August 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
King's press conference on Vietnam was held in January 12, 1968, at the Belmont Plaza Hotel, when he appeared with a group called Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, to denounce the arrests of De. Benjamin Spock and others for allegedly counseling young men to evade the draft. The audio is from the New York City Municipal Archives — WNYC Collection.