Twenty years have come and gone since Congress passed, and President Reagan signed into law, a bill creating a federal holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., and, in those years, the holiday has become little more than yet another session in the perennial ritual of mass production and consumption that American public festivals generally celebrate. Nevertheless, unlike most other holidays, King Day continues to elicit a round of opinion pieces, editorials, and commentary about the “true” meaning of both the day and the man after whom it is named. If even half the ink spilled in the worship of “Dr.” King were spent pondering the meaning of Christmas and Independence Day, we would be, at once, the most pious and the most patriotic people on the planet.
One effect of King Day has been to mute King’s radicalism and to absorb him and his outlandish beliefs into the imagery of the harmless hero of the segregated lunch-counter and voters’ registration marches. As NAACP boss Julian Bond said about King on Meet the Press in 1998, “He’s frozen in 1963 at the march on Washington, sort of the gifted preacher who had a dream.” But
the real legacy [of King] goes well beyond that, all the way up to the date of his death, and it’s the legacy of a man who really was a revolutionary figure, who was a critic of American capitalism, who was a critic of American foreign policy, who wanted a fairly radical restructuring of the American social order. We don’t remember that King. We don’t celebrate that legacy. Instead, we celebrate the ’63 march on Washington legacy of this sort of cuddly figure, a warm guy, black and white together, we shall overcome.
Mr. Bond, of course, was entirely correct, and the annual goo-goo jabber from Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett about how King was really a conservative whom Republicans today should emulate is part of the emasculation of King that the holiday has helped perform and to which Mr. Bond was sarcastically pointing. Nevertheless, no matter how much King’s radicalism has been obscured by the ornamentations of the holiday, that truth always threatens to pop out at the wrong time and place, to push the nation and the culture even more rapidly down the road toward the “radical restructuring of the American social order” that King sought.
Indeed, much of the “restructuring” has either already taken place or is in the process of taking place, in no small part because of the King holiday. As I argued some years ago, the effect of elevating King to the national pantheon is to legitimize and authorize his doctrines—especially his claim that the country owed to American blacks “a promissory note” for slavery and segregation. Since we have canonized King, how can we deny the truth of that claim? And if we acknowledge its truth, how can we effectively resist the agenda of what is now called “political correctness,” multiculturalism, and “reparations” for slavery?
Recognizing the passion for both racial and social radicalism inherent in King’s “restructuring of the American social order” immediately raises the old problem of the prophet’s relationship to communism, and it was no accident that, during his life, his enemies repeatedly sought to “link” him with the Communist Party and its agents, foreign and domestic. In an October 1983 speech on the Senate floor, the major congressional opponent of the King holiday, Sen. Jesse Helms, concentrated on King’s communist associations. (As a matter of fact, I wrote the speech.) And it is no accident that the professional hagiographers of King have devoted themselves to trying to discredit the links between King and his communist friends rather than seeking to defend or whitewash what actually might be considered more serious flaws, such as his notoriously goatish and hypocritical sex life and his lifelong habit of blatant plagiarism of virtually everything he ever wrote or said, from his doctoral dissertation to his last adventures in oratorical bombast.
The Helms speech remains probably the definitive collection of the document-ed lore of King’s communist associations, which consisted mainly of his reliance on several known members of the Communist Party USA for material assistance. Some of these apparatchiks seemed to vanish or gravitate to other activities, un-American or not, as King’s career and national stature rose. The main apparatchik who remained at King’s side throughout his life and career, however, did not vanish. His name was Stanley D. Levison, and no one has ever disputed that much of what King accomplished, wrote, and uttered was, in fact, Levison’s work.
It was because of Levison’s membership in the Communist Party and especially the major role he played in helping to finance the party through funds illegally received from Moscow that J. Edgar Hoover urged that King and Levison be kept under continuous FBI surveillance once Hoover became aware that Levison was working with King in 1962. Both President and Attorney General Kennedy agreed to this, and Hoover did keep King and Levison under scrutiny for several years. A 1979 Justice Department report on FBI surveillance of King acknowledged the importance of Levison’s work for him:
The files [of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference] are replete with instances of his counseling King and his organization on matters pertaining to organization, finances, political strategy and speech writing . . .
The main response of most King hagiographers to the Levison relationship has been silence—or outrage when it is mentioned. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan threw Senator Helms’ speech to the floor of the Senate, stomping on it and denouncing it as “a packet of filth” (the title by which Helms’ staffers soon began to refer to it). Senator Moynihan repeated his act of stomping for the benefit of the news cameras once he was off the Senate floor and a bit closer to the Capitol Hill saloons in which he spent so much of his tenure in office. More recently, however, the gentleman who is probably King’s hagiographer-in-chief has claimed to have proof that the King-Levison relationship was entirely beneficent.
David Garrow won the Pulitzer Prize for his mammoth biography of King, and his earlier book, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr., was the first to discuss Levison’s relationship with King. The latter book, published in 1981, more or less concedes that Levison was indeed a communist or close to the party during his relationship with King; but in the July/August 2002 Atlantic Monthly, Mr. Garrow presented evidence that he thinks exonerates Levison and King and inculpates J. Edgar Hoover as misleading the Kennedy and Johnson administrations about Levison.
The FBI files on Levison that have so far been released to the public seem to show that he left the Communist Party in 1956 or 1957 and that the FBI dropped him from its list of “key figures” in the party in March 1957. In June 1957, sources in the party reportedly told the FBI that Levison was simply a rank-and-file member and was no longer involved in clandestine funding of the party. Since Levison did not meet King until 1956 and was not deeply involved in helping him in the civil-rights movement (which Levison called the “liberation struggle”) until April 1957, it seems that Levison could not have been working to subvert or influence King on behalf of the party or its Soviet masters during most of the time of his association with him. Hoover, according to Garrow, knew this but declined to report it to either the Kennedys or, later, to Lyndon Johnson, and so both administrations continued to accept the FBI director’s inaccurate claim that Levison remained a high-ranking Communist Party agent. As long as they thought so, Levison’s relationship with King and the civil-rights movement could be viewed only with apprehension by the administration, both for national-security and for personal political reasons. By 1963, the FBI, according to Garrow, had “ironclad evidence that Levison had explicitly severed whatever remaining ties he . . . had still had with the CPUSA,” but the FBI shared that evidence with no one outside its own ranks.
There is a problem or two with that claim, however. In the first place, the “ironclad evidence” that Garrow offers is a memo of a third-hand report of a conversation Levison had recently held with an old party comrade who reported to the FBI’s source that Levison said the Communist Party had become “irrelevant” and “ineffective” and that he would provide no further support for it. Aside from the derivative nature of this claim, however, it appears to mean only that Levison was disgruntled with the American Communist Party, not necessarily with the communist movement as a whole, its Soviet leadership, or its ultimate goals.
Perhaps even more seriously, it is curious that so distinguished an historian as Garrow never bothers to cite or even mention John Barron’s 1996 book, Operation SOLO: The FBI’s Man in the Kremlin, which discusses Levison’s continuing relationship with Communist Party members well into the 1960’s (specifically, Lem Harris, a CPUSA official; Hunter Pitts O’Dell, a member of the national committee of the party as late as 1961 and also a close confidant and advisor of King; and Levison’s own brother Roy, who remained a party member). As Barron remarks, it is not at all common for those who break with the Communist Party to maintain friendly ties with former comrades, nor is it encouraged by the comrades themselves. That Levison did so raises suspicions that his claims to have left the party were not quite as “ironclad” as Garrow wants to think.
Barron also points out that Levison met regularly with a man named Victor Lessiovsky, a Soviet official and assistant to U.N. Secretary General U Thant and long known to have been a high-ranking officer of the KGB. Lessiovsky’s specialty as a Soviet agent was the recruitment and manipulation of “Third World peoples.” Though Barron himself does not suggest it, it would have made sense to have had Lessiovsky’s input on a long-term KGB operation to infiltrate and manipulate (or perhaps blackmail) the black leadership of the growing civil-rights movement in the United States, an operation for which the CPUSA, by the 1960’s, would not have been suited. It is peculiar that Garrow never mentions Barron’s book or Lessiovsky or Levison’s relationship with him; if Barron’s information is accurate, however, then Garrow’s exoneration of Levison is worthless.
If Levison remained a communist or actually a KGB operative, does that mean that King himself was a communist or pro-communist? As Garrow says, “Of course not.” Indeed, King’s noncommunism is perhaps even bolstered by the presence of a communist infiltrator among his advisors. (Had King been an ideological communist, no agent of influence would have been needed.) But his reliance on Levison (as well as on O’Dell and, earlier, on several other comrades) does tell us that King saw nothing especially sinister in communism, that he didn’t mind having communists and apparatchiks in his entourage and movement and making use of whatever talents and resources they could bring him, and that he was willing to lie to the President of the United States about his relationship with them. (After John F. Kennedy insisted that King “get rid” of O’Dell, King falsely told the President he had done so.) Indeed, he was entirely willing to mouth the anti-American words they wrote for him, including those of a notorious 1967 pro-Hanoi speech against the Vietnam War (written by Levison), in which King compared the United States to Nazi Germany. Did his communist pals merely manipulate him into making the speech, or did they blackmail him? The possibility of either is precisely why J. Edgar Hoover understood the importance of keeping King under surveillance.
King’s casualness in accepting help from known communists, even apart from the question of their actual influence on him, goes far to discredit him as a serious moral force (even apart from his sex life and plagiarism), and it is understandable why his hagiographers have been so reluctant to talk honestly about this side of him. He is perhaps no more discredited than many other liberals of his time who also ignored or lied about such figures as Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, against whom there was far more damning evidence than against Stanley Levison. Those liberals are not icons in the national pantheon, however, and no one invokes their names to promote a “radical restructuring of the American social order.” Those who continue to oppose the sort of “restructuring” that men like King and Levison wanted have every good reason to pull King’s icon down from its pedestal and to tell the world the truth about why it should be smashed. €