The FBI and Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King was never himself a Communist—far from it. But the FBI's wiretapping of King was precipitated by his association with Stanley Levison, a man with reported ties to the Communist Party. Newly available documents reveal what the FBI actually knew—the vast extent of Levinson's Party activities

On October 10, 1963, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy committed what is widely viewed as one of the most ignominious acts in modern American history: he authorized the Federal Bureau of Investigation to begin wiretapping the telephones of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Kennedy believed that one of King's closest advisers was a top-level member of the American Communist Party, and that King had repeatedly misled Administration officials about his ongoing close ties with the man. Kennedy acted reluctantly, and his order remained secret until May of 1968, just a few weeks after King's assassination and a few days before Kennedy's own. But the FBI onslaught against King that followed Kennedy's authorization remains notorious, and the stains on the reputations of everyone involved are indelible.

Yet at the time, neither Robert Kennedy nor anyone else outside the FBI knew more than a tiny part of the story that had led to that decision, or even the identities of the two FBI informants who had set the investigation in motion. Only in 1981 were their names—Jack and Morris Childs—publicly revealed, but even then the relevant documents were so heavily redacted that only the most bare-bones sketch of what had taken place was possible.

But now an ongoing FBI "reprocessing" of those documents, pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act, is resulting in the release of hundreds of largely unredacted pages that finally allow the story to be told.

The crucial figure was Stanley David Levison, a white New York lawyer and businessman who first met Martin Luther King in 1956, just as the young minister was being catapulted to national fame as a result of his role in the remarkable bus boycott against racially segregated seating in Montgomery, Alabama. The FBI knew, in copious firsthand detail from the Childs brothers, that Levison had secretly served as one of the top two financiers for the Communist Party USA in the years just before he met King. The Childs brothers' direct, personal contact with Levison from the mid-1940s to 1956 was sufficient to leave no doubt whatsoever that their reports about his role were accurate and truthful. Their proximity to Levison also gave them direct knowledge of his disappearance from CPUSA financial affairs in the years after 1956.

In the months immediately following Levison's visible departure from CPUSA activities, his selfless assistance to King soon established him as the young minister's most influential white counselor. But when the FBI tardily learned of Levison's closeness to King in early 1962, the Bureau understandably hypothesized that someone with Levison's secret (though thoroughly documented) record of invaluable service to the CPUSA might very well not have turned up at Martin Luther King's elbow by happenstance. With the FBI suggesting that Levison's seeming departure from the CPUSA was in all likelihood a ruse, Robert Kennedy and his aides felt they had little choice but to assume the worst and act as defensively as possible. The Kennedy Administration kept itself at arm's length from King, and events quickly spiraled, with the federal government undertaking extensive electronic surveillance of King himself.

The information that Jack and Morris Childs furnished the FBI, from 1952 to 1956, about their repeated face-to-face dealings with Stanley Levison concerning CPUSA finances establishes beyond any possible question that Levison in those years was a highly important Party operative. Given how richly detailed the Childs brothers' evidence about Levison actually was, the new and unredacted information merits an airing at some length.

The story began in late 1951 or early 1952, in New York, when two Bureau agents approached Jack Childs, a forty-four-year-old CPUSA veteran who until late 1948 had been a low-level functionary in the Party's highly secret financial apparatus. Jack's older brother Morris, a senior Party figure who previously had been the head of the CPUSA in Illinois, had been removed as editor of the Party newspaper, the Daily Worker, in mid-1947, ostensibly because of a serious heart condition. Then, in 1948, the CPUSA failed to provide medical support when one of Jack's young sons was stricken with a cancer that cost him an eye, and the brothers all but quit the Party.

One CPUSA veteran who observed their alienation was Patrick Toohey, who in the late 1930s had been the CPUSA's resident ambassador in Moscow. When Toohey began cooperating with the FBI, in the spring of 1950, Jack and Morris Childs were among the former colleagues whose experiences he recounted. The Bureau soon succeeded in adding Jack Childs to its stable of informants, and after an introduction from Jack, both Morris and Morris's companion, Sonia Schlossberg, followed suit.

Jack Childs had served as primary "leg man," or assistant, to William Weiner, the CPUSA's chief financier, from 1945 to 1948. In May of 1952 he recalled for agents how Weiner had garnered secret contributions and handled the Party's extensive cash repositories. Among the top contributors, Jack said, were Stanley and Roy Levison, twin brothers who owned a Ford dealership in northern New Jersey that contributed well over $10,000 a year to the CPUSA. "On three or four occasions after Weiner had received money from Stanley Levison, Weiner gave the money to Jack Childs who placed it in a safe deposit box in Childs' name" at a New York bank, an FBI memo detailing one of Jack's earliest debriefings recounted. What's more, when Jack stopped working for Weiner, in 1948, "he transferred to Stanley Levison all cash, bonds, and lists of depositories and records there[to]fore under the informant's control." Stanley Levison was a new name to the FBI.

The FBI's interest in the Childs brothers concerned the future far more than the past, and the Bureau wondered whether their long-standing friendship with Weiner could lead to their reactivation as Communist Party members. Morris, living in Chicago, expected a visit from Weiner in September of 1952, but late that month he informed his handler, Special Agent Carl Freyman, that another visitor from New York had been in touch with him a few days earlier: Stanley Levison. Levison "told the informant that he had been delegated by William Weiner of the National Office, Communist Party, to contact informant," and Levison "questioned him concerning reasons for his failure to keep in contact with the National Office of the Communist Party, and also concerning the informant's health." Morris's answers more than passed muster; Levison briefed him on a host of Party developments and stressed the importance of precautions to avoid FBI tails and surveillance. "Levison advised the informant that he spent one and one-half hours reaching the point where he contacted the informant." The painful irony of Stanley Levison's vetting Morris Childs for reactivation in the upper reaches of the CPUSA would start to become clear only a decade later.

Morris traveled to New York City for a ten-day visit late in November, and phoned Weiner upon his arrival. Weiner "greeted him warmly and suggested that CG 5824-S [Morris's FBI-informant code number] call Stanley Levison. NY 694-S [Jack's informant code number] advised that Weiner with Levison's assistance controls the financial operations of the CPUSA. As a result of a call to Levison [Morris] met Levison in front of NY Public Library," on Forty-second Street. A day or two later Morris met Weiner at Penn Station and went with him to Weiner's home, in Far Rockaway, Queens, where Morris spent the night. "Weiner was curious to know how [Morris] existed during the past four years and [Morris] gave him a plausible explanation which seemed to satisfy Weiner. [Morris] mentioned that [Jack] had been of considerable assistance to him financially." Weiner arranged for Morris to meet the CPUSA leader, William Z. Foster, for lunch a few days later, and Morris's rehabilitation appeared all but complete.

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