To the Editor:

Kimberly Shankman’s otherwise fine review of Stephen B. Dates’ Let the Trumpet Sound (“American Hero?” October) nonetheless neglected a seamy side to Martin Luther King’s truly American crusade for equal rights-his indifference to Communist influence in the civil rights movement. This influ­ence is no right-wing canard or figment of the imagination. And certainly one need not adopt every nuance of Senator Jesse Helms’s anti-National Holiday rhetoric to see the truth of much of his argument.

Professor David Garrow (The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis, W. W. Norton) has pointed out that Stanley Levison, who handled financial activities for the Communist Party as a money manager and as a secret donor, was one of King’s closest advisers. According to Dates himself, Levison “had helped King prepare his income taxes, write speeches, sign book contracts, produce Stride Toward Freedom, and raise funds for the movement and King’s various court trials. And King often stayed with Levison and his wife when he was in New York” (p. 249). President Kennedy urged King to break off with Levison, and King did so for a while but then reestablished an open relationship. It is not unimportant that the FBI suspected great influence by Levison on King’s turn toward criticism of the Vietnam War (p. 437).

Those who maintain King’s greatness-whether or not they support the notion of a National Holi­day-should not overlook this serious defect in his character. Indeed, this blindness toward Com­munist influence on a variety of “liberal” causes is a key failing of many of those who supported King throughout his career. But we dishonor the American political tradition-as surely as the institutions of slavery and segregation did-when we remain silent on the presence of Communists in places where they should be made most unwelcome.

— Kenneth C. Blanchard
Claremont Graduate School

Kimberly Shankman replies:

Mr. Blanchard’s letter raises an important point which I had considered carefully while writing my review. The question of the influence of Commu­nism on King and the civil rights movement is one which disturbs many Americans. I chose not to refer to this question for the simple reason that the evidence to support a charge of witting or unwitting complicity with the Communist Party seems to me at best inconclusive.

It is true, as Mr. Blanchard points out, that Levison, a close personal friend of King, had at one time been a member of the Communist Party. However, according to Oates, his involvement had stopped seven years before his association with King began. Oates also states that extensive FBI surveillance turned up no evidence of Levison’s involvement with the Communist Party at any time during his association with King (pp. 249-50).

I do not believe that such weak evidence would justify my bringing a charge of Communism against King. It is not because I take such a charge lightly, or because I question the legitimacy of making such a charge when the evidence warrants it, but rather because I take it with the utmost seriousness that I chose not to make it in this case. On the basis of the facts as I know them, I could not justify besmirching the memory of a man who has done his country such great service.