The Kennedy Administration engaged in an unforgivable act of government intrusion when it wiretapped Dr. Martin Luther King. That view is baked into the history books, and Jimmy Carter was just reprising this theme in his eulogy to Coretta Scott King. But the truth is that the famous civil rights leader brought those wiretaps on himself. This is not an untold story, as much as it is a forgotten one.
The Cold War was in full swing in late 1963 when Bobby Kennedy authorized the first King wiretap. On JFK’s watch, Khrushchev had put up the Berlin Wall and had almost provoked a nuclear exchange by introducing atomic-armed missiles into Cuba. “Wars of National Liberation” were being fully stoked by the shoe-pounder in the Kremlin. Yet King, already a powerful civil rights figure, had surrounded himself with several radical advisers, including at least two long-time members of the Communist Party.
Stanley Levison was one of them. He may have been, as King’s friendly biographer, David Garrow sometimes suggests, King’s most trusted adviser from 1956 until the civil rights leader’s death in 1968. Levison, an important CP member, was also responsible for placing on the board of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference Hunter Pitts (Jack) O’Dell, who became a member of the national committee of the U.S. Communist Party in 1959. These were the indisputable facts that eventually impelled the Kennedy Administration to wiretap King.
Levison’s Red Ties
Levison’s closeness to King is beyond question. Proof can be found in the FBI files on Levison — many of which are in this author’s possession — and in Garrow’s prodigious works, including his 1986 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of King, Bearing the Cross. Garrow, with additionally released FBI files on hand, also focused sharply on the Levison-King relationship in the July-August 2002 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.
Here’s some of what we know: Levison met King for the first time in 1956. “[A] special relationship quickly blossomed,” says Garrow, and “from the late 1950s until King’s death in 1968, it was without a doubt King’s closest friendship with a white person.”
Garrison writes that in April 1957 Levison “was counseling King about the first major national address that King would deliver — from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on May 17. Over the ensuing months, Levison negotiated a book contract for King’s own account of the Montgomery boycott, Stride Toward Freedom, and then offered King line-by-line criticism and assistance in editing and polishing the book’s text.”
Levison also took charge of other tasks, says Garrow, “ranging from writing King’s fundraising letters to preparing his tax returns.”
Garrow also notes: On Jan. 4, 1962, Isadore Wofsy, a top Communist Party member with whom Levison was in touch, informed undercover FBI agent Jack Childs that “Levison had had a major hand in writing a King speech delivered to the AFL-CIO’s annual national convention a month before.”
King and Levison “grew closer over the years,” Garrow informs us, with King eagerly seeking Levison’s advice on countless matters, both great and small. Even after King had been warned by Kennedy Administration officials about Levison’s background, King refused to abandon his good friend and advisor.
Levison’s influence with King was clear and irrefutable, as was his commitment to communism. Morris and Jack Childs, who had been committed Communists themselves in the 1930s and 1940s, knew all about Levison. The Childs brothers had become disenchanted with communism by 1948 but managed to penetrate the party’s highest echelons in the early 1950s, this time as FBI informers. Their remarkable escapades, including Morris’s critical meetings with key Kremlin leaders, are told in the authoritative Operation Solo, written by the late John Barron and published by Regnery (a Human Events sister company). Barron, who spoke Russian, was a renowned expert on the KGB and Soviet counter-espionage activities.
By 1946, Barron’s book informs us, Levision, then 34, had “gained admission into the inner circle of the Communist underground.” Barron writes that Jack Childs informed the FBI in the 1950s that Levison “helped establish party business fronts and collected money from party ‘angels’ in Hollywood and on Wall Street.” In 1955, Phillip Bart, who “brought” Morris back into the party (without, of course, realizing Morris was working for the FBI), told Jack that Levison and his twin brother, Roy, were now in charge of the CP’s party finances.
Jack, in 1958, reported a conversation with James Jackson, the party secretary in charge of “Negro and Southern Affairs.” Jackson claimed that he and Eugene Dennis, then the top CP leader, had conferred with the “most secret and guarded people who are in touch with, consulting with and guiding [Martin] Luther King.” He didn’t mention any names, but said they were “party guys” and left the unmistakable impression that he was talking about Levison and O’Dell.
On May 6, 1960, Jack Childs, according to Barron, reported to the Bureau: “Hunter Pitts [Jack] O’Dell is working full time in connection with the King mass meeting to be held in Harlem on May 17, 1960. Working closely with O’Dell are Stanley and Roy Levison. … CP policy at the moment is to concentrate upon Martin Luther King.”
Levison, according to Garrow, “recruited” O’Dell back in 1959 to become the “administrator of SCLC’s two-person New York Office…” When asked by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1958 if he was a Communist Party member, O’Dell hid behind the 5th Amendment. In December 1959, according to an FBI report, he was elected a member of the National Committee of the Communist Party.
In mid-June of 1962, the bug in Levison’s office picked up Levison’s own description of how he, in Garrow’s words, “had recommended that King hire Jack O’Dell as his administrative assistant in Atlanta.” (Nothing came of that recommendation, but Levison was clearly comfortable in trying to elevate O’Dell’s influence. )
An FBI surveillance team, notes Barron, also discovered another Levison connection when he was advising King: “KGB officer Victor Lessiovsky, a sophisticated and engaging operative well known to Western security services.” Lessiovsky, according to Barron, “specialized in influence operations, that is, in inducing influential foreigners to do, wittingly or unwittingly, what the Soviet Union wanted them to do.”
Thus, when Martin Luther King began plans for his famous 1963 March on Washington, JFK and his brother, Bobby, were very concerned, with good reason. They had already sent warnings to King to separate from both Levison and O’Dell through several top administration officials. Then, in June 1963, President Kennedy himself, after a meeting with black leaders at the White House, met alone with King in the Rose Garden.
Never Severed Relations
JFK had been fearful for some time that the Soviets may have been manipulating King through the American CP and through Levison in particular. He warned King that he was in danger of losing his civil rights cause altogether because of his loyalty to both Levison and O’Dell. “They’re Communists,” he informed King, according to Garrow’s account. “You’ve got to get rid of them.” King never severed his relations with either man, even though he pledged that he would and lied about doing so to Kennedy officials on several occasions.
And that’s why the Kennedy brothers felt it necessary to tap King’s telephone. They would have been derelict in their duties if they hadn’t.
Martin Luther King is remembered by Americans for his achievements in furthering equal rights for blacks, but many believe he was also manipulated by the far-left, including CP members. When he firmly hitched the civil rights movement to the “anti-war” movement during the Vietnam war, he appeared to take the side of the violent Communists in Hanoi rather than of those who genuinely opposed the conflict in that country for religious reasons. He labeled this nation as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” accused President Johnson of lying about Hanoi’s “peace” overtures and likened this country to Nazi Germany for trying to defend South Vietnam from a Communist takeover.