David Garrow, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., has managed to look at hundreds of never-before-seen FBI reports and surveillance summaries revealing the stunning findings of the FBI’s secret monitoring of the legendary civil rights leader. Mr. Garrow, a meticulous scholar, concentrates on fresh materials disclosing King’s serial extra-marital affairs but also elaborates on a previous governmental scandal: that these FBI documents conclusively reveal how its director, J. Edgar Hoover, “authorized top Bureau officials to send Dr. King a tape-recording of his sexual activities along with an anonymous message encouraging him to take his own life.”
A painful historical reckoning of King’s personal conduct (as distinct from his civil rights accomplishments) “seems inevitable,” he writes, but Hoover’s public conduct appears equally notorious. When Attorney General Robert Kennedy authorized the wiretapping, Mr. Garrow argues that he set in motion “one of the most ignominious acts in modern American history,” referring to the tapes and letter sent to King. Left and right agree this was a wicked act that never should have occurred.
But were the Kennedys and the FBI wrong to tap King and his associates’ phones and to bug their homes and offices, as even some solid conservatives seem to be saying? (Among them: Mark Levin in his excellent new book, “Unfreedom of the Press.”) To tap King was the original sin, suggest the critics, but the reason for the surveillance was wholly justifiable from a national security point of view. We were, after all, in the midst of the Cold War and King was surrounding himself with Kremlin loyalists.
The FBI began wiretapping King’s home and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference office in Atlanta on Nov. 8, 1963, with Robert Kennedy’s written approval. A major reason, as Mr. Garrow informs us, is that “the FBI had insistently told Kennedy that King’s closest and most influential advisor” was New York attorney and businessman Stanley D. Levison, “a ‘secret member‘“of the Communist Party. Was the FBI wrong?
The late John Barron, whom the author frequently consulted on Russian subversion, was considered a pre-eminent authority on Soviet intelligence, having testified as an expert witness in seven major Soviet spy trials. He wrote an extraordinarily illuminating biography, “Operation Solo,” on Morris and Jack Childs, two key Communist Party USA members who provided the U.S. government with Moscow’s inner-most secrets for nearly three decades.
Using information that the Childs brothers supplied, as well as extensive FBI materials, here’s what Barron writes about Levison. By 1946, he had gained admission “into the inner circle of the Communist underground.” Levison helped establish party business fronts and collected money from party “angels” in Hollywood and on Wall Street. Both he and his twin brother, Roy, were considered such loyal CP members that in the 1950s they were put in charge of the party’s finances.
Levison met King in the 1950s and, says Barron, “subsequently attached himself to the young civil rights leader as a personal confidant and advisor.” At Levison’s behest, King later employed Jack O’Dell, “a secret member of the party’s governing body, the National Committee.”
Jack reported that O’Dell was “working full time” for King in May 1960 as were the Levison brothers and that current CP policy “is to concentrate upon Martin Luther King.”
King was not a Communist himself, but his connection to Levison and O’Dell sounded alarm bells within the FBI, who informed newly elected president John Kennedy of his close ties to these longtime party members.
Though Levison was said to have doubts about the party in the mid-1950s, Barron notes he never acted like a disillusioned Communist. He continued to enjoy the comradeship and collaboration of several party officials long after his alleged disillusion. Between 1958 and early 1962, the Levison brothers also regularly chipped in lavish sums to the party (valued by Mr. Garrow as close to three-quarters of a million dollars).
More damning information was to surface. Barron noted that an FBI surveillance team discovered that in 1961 Levison was repeatedly “seeing … KGB officer Victor Lessiovsky” when Lessiovsky was at the United Nations.
Despite urgent requests from the president and his brother to ditch Levison and O’Dell, King kept them on as close advisers, even while preparing his historic March on Washington. Though he ostensibly severed relations at one point, Barron reveals that he “carefully arranged to maintain both of them surreptitiously through an intermediary and eventually renewed them openly.” All this is verified by Mr. Garrow, who says Levison remained King’s close friend “from the late 1950s until King’s death in 1968.”
When the FBI wiretapped King and his associates, Nikita Khruschev was running the Kremlin and still intent on conquering America and the West. He was creating all sorts of malicious mischief worldwide, including nearly provoking a nuclear war by placing Soviet missiles into Cuba. The Communist Party was still Moscow’s mouthpiece. Surely the Kennedys and the FBI would have been derelict in their duties if they had not approved of the wiretaps to see just how closely Communist members were manipulating King’s powerful mass movement. The FBI deserved condemnation for sending that recording and letter to King, but potential abuse of data can’t outweigh the need to take reasonable measures to secure the nation’s safety. Wiretapping King was the right thing to do.
• Allan H. Ryskind was a longtime editor and owner of Human Events. His latest book is “Hollywood Traitors” (Regnery, 2015).
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