Sunday, January 17, 2010

Libby, Martin, and Stanley

Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63” is not so much biography as it is a wonderful tableau of characters who, with Martin Luther King, were instrumental in both positive and negative ways in the Civil Rights Movement. Branch’s book, published in 1988, won the Pulitzer Prize.

The author notes that one Stanley David Levison was King’s “...most reliable colleague of his life.”(p. 208) Quite a tall statement, but Branch gives lengthy examples and vignettes of Levison’s strength in fund-raising, networking with philanthropists, organizational skills, political insight, and even writing ability. Levison’s section in the Branch’s index has more references than all other characters except for King.

Detractors of King, like Jesse Helms, have used Levison as the chink in King’s noble armor. Levison was a known member of the American Communist Party up until 1954. Two years later, he was introduced to Martin Luther King by the heir of the Reynold’s Tobacco fortune, socialite, torch singer, and social justice funder, Libby Holman Reynolds.

Libby funded King’s trip to Ghana in ’57 and his sojourn to India in ’59 to meet with followers of the deceased Gandhi. Her continued funding and Levison’s skill in raising funds provided important resources to the cause.

Taylor Branch in his forward lamented that the FBI files about Levison and his ties to the Communist Party were then unavailable. Since then (in 2002), the government released some of the transcripts of Hoover’s aggressive wiretaps. This link is one of those files. It’s interesting that Stanley Levison was very cordial with the FBI, according to Branch who wrote that Levison on occasion refused a recruitment offer from Hoover.

But, despite being mentioned on but one of Taylor Branch’s epic, 1064 pages, the most notable character may just be Libby Holman Reynolds. While Peggy Guggenheim championed and collected great artists like Pollack and Picasso, Libby championed and funded King. In addition, she connected King with numerous people with resources and talents; Levison being the most important for King.

Taylor Branch’s book reminds us that the parting of the waters did not just happen because of one man. The parting and the subsequent path was made possible through the passion and resources of many people…like Libby Holman Reynolds. This is not just Black history.

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