Prof. David Miller of USD reviews ‘Dangerous Friendship’

Dangerous Friendship: Stanley Levison, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Kennedy Brothers.

By Ben Kamin. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2014.

Reviewed by David Miller, Ph.D., Lecturer, Department of History, University of San Diego.

Ask the average American on the street today about Dr. King and you will likely get effusive praise. Americans today love Dr. King and assume that other Americans always have too. Ask that same average American about the people involved in the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) and you will likely get a response about “black people in the South.” The Civil Rights Movement was a Black thing, right? These are two of the most common misunderstandings of the CRM. The fact is Dr. King was not only despised by many white Americans in his day, but he was hounded, hunted, threatened, and harassed by authorities at all levels. He was not always loved. And while yes, the primary actors and beneficiaries of the CRM with its abolishing of legal segregation, legal disenfranchisement, and second class citizenship were Blacks, the CRM extend to include a wide array of Americans, especially many historically marginalized groups – workers, immigrants, women of all colors, northern college students, Jews, Native Americans, and the list goes on. And they came from all parts of the country. While the CRM had Blacks at its center, it also had many actors, benefited a wide array of Americans, and was never as popular at the time as our average American in the street would like to believe.

Enter Rabbi Ben Kamin’s new book, “Dangerous Friendship.” His book tells the tale of Stanley Levison, a little known friend and benefactor to Dr. King and the CRM broadly. Levison was Jewish. Leftist. Radical. Complicated. At times paradoxical. And he scared the heck out of the FBI. He was also the perfect target. To be so closely associated with King was a liability. A dangerous friendship indeed. If anyone understood the need to check, constantly, the long list of white Americans’ objections to the CRM, it was King. He had to walk a fine line, as he did in nearly every avenue of his activism, between the benefits of his activism and the way the means might subvert his cause. This book tells that story and rightfully reminds the reader that the CRM was a complex, messy, controversial, diverse, and dangerous moment. And Levison, an American Jew, was right there in the middle of it.

I have read Kamin’s books and this one is to my mind his most scholarly and polished effort to date. He weaves together a complicated historical narrative with personal, readable prose. He manages the historian’s bifocals expertly; balancing the big picture with the personal and the individual. After all, the CRM was people. Kamin keeps that personal story front and center. With his colorful prose, you really do feel as if you are meeting Levison. Yet the book speaks to the broader interpretations of the CRM as an important historical moment. It will appeal to a range of scholars, including those interested in King, the CRM, American Jewish leftist history, or crime and the FBI. It will appeal equally to the average reader, an audience I for one think needs this book the most. Was King a hero of Civil Rights? You bet. But getting there involved a diverse cast and a lot of danger.