When Martin Luther King visited the White House on June 22, 1963, President John Kennedy took him on a private walk in the Rose Garden and urged him to cut his personal and organizational ties to both Stanley Levison, a white businessman and lawyer who was a close confidant, and Jack O’Dell, a Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) staffer who had been hired on Levison’s recommendation, on the grounds that they were Communists.
It was the culmination of months of warnings from a variety of government officials, including Attorney General Robert Kennedy. King had demanded proof, particularly in the case of Levison, and had been rebuffed, because the FBI’s information was highly classified. Administration officials were nervous that public knowledge about Levison and O’Dell could destroy prospects for passage of the pending civil rights bill. Although Levison himself thought he and King needed to break ties, King set up a system for indirectly remaining in consultation. King also dissembled about O’Dell’s continued ties to the SCLC. Presented with this evidence, Robert Kennedy authorized wiretaps on King and the SCLC. Over the next few years, those taps produced extensive and embarrassing evidence of King’s extramarital affairs that J. Edgar Hoover used to try to discredit the civil rights leader.
Jack O’Dell had a public record as a Communist party functionary. In 1981, David Garrow, the King biographer, revealed that Stanley Levison had first come to the FBI’s attention in the mid-1950s, after its two top informants in the Communist Party USA, Morris and Jack Childs, told the bureau that Levison had been a central figure in party financial activities. Not only was he the source of a big chunk of money bundled from Communist-leaning businessmen, he was also actively involved in laundering party funds. That was disturbing enough. But the Childs brothers were also the key figures through whom Soviet money—hundreds of thousands of dollars a year—was channeled to the American Communist party. The FBI discontinued its investigation around 1956, after the Childs’s connection with Levison ended amid some signs that he might have become disillusioned with the Communist party.
In 1962, however, the FBI learned that Levison was a close adviser and collaborator with King and had first become close to him in 1956. Now, its suspicions were aroused: Had Levison broken his ties to the party on a pretext? Was it possible that some of the Soviet money being funneled into the United States was financing the civil rights movement? However scanty the evidence produced by the wiretaps, these two questions were monumentally important and politically fraught.
Dangerous Friendship, purporting to tell the story of King’s relationship with Levison, is a vivid demonstration of the sinking standards for university press books. To begin with the most pedantic example, it is notably unhelpful to have many of the rather small number of footnotes read in their entirety: “Letter archived in the King Papers.” Why bother with a footnote that provides no assistance to anyone curious about the source of a statement or claim? Then, there are the frequent re-creations of conversations between two people based on the recollections of other people who were not present, a practice more appropriate for People than a university press.
The book is replete with factual errors. Some, such as the absurd claim that the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed in 1941, may be the result of inadequate or nonexistent editing. Others, like the argument that only the Communist party offered legal representation to the Scottsboro defendants, reflect ignorance about American communism. Some, such as the bizarre statement that, in 1950, Julius Rosenberg “connected himself to a Soviet mole” and “sold” military and atomic secrets to the Russians, bespeaks an author who cannot be bothered to read even a Wikipedia entry—a suspicion confirmed by Ben Kamin’s insistence at various points that the Rosenbergs were convicted variously of treason or sedition. It also unjustly and inaccurately characterizes the political beliefs of other people, frequently labeling Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph as Communist sympathizers in the 1950s.
Nor is Dangerous Friendship redeemed by good writing. Its breezy prose is often punctuated by howlers like this description of Levison following World War II: “Stanley was like a man in secret mourning for an unrevealed grief; his plaintive countenance, shrouded by cigarette smoke and framed in thick glasses, seemed drawn into the crypt of black suffering in American and artistic strangulation in Russia.”