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Harvey Shapiro: The Poet Behind MLK’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’

Poet and editor Harvey Shapiro was precisely the sort of offbeat genius who, a half-century or so ago, made Greenwich Village the capital of hipness. After serving as a tailgunner on a B-17 crew in World War II, he landed in lower Manhattan, where he lived on the same street as e.e. cummings and hung out at the old Lion’s Head tavern, where Norman Mailer once held court. He patronized Maurice, the beret-wearing butcher at Jefferson Market, and awoke on Sunday mornings “to love calls between the women inside the House of Detention on Tenth Street and the pimps and lovers on the outside.” Then and for decades thereafter, he wrote volumes of verse about urban life and the flashes of insight that he gleaned from everyday experiences. (In his poem “Through the Boroughs,” for example, he found inspiration in city noises: “I hear the music from the street. Every night. Sequestered at my desk, my luminous hand finding the dark words. Hard, very hard. And the music from car radios is so effortless.”)

But Shapiro, who died on Jan. 7 at age 88 in New York City, had another, even more unusual distinction: By some accounts, it was Shapiro – at the time, an editor at the New York Times Magazinewho asked the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to write his famous 1963 essay Letter from Birmingham Jail.” King’s letter eloquently laid out the case – citing precedents ranging from the Israelites’ refusal to obey the statutes of Nebuchadnezzar to the failed 1956 revolt of Hungarian freedom fighters against Soviet oppression – that African Americans had to take to the streets to battle racial segregation, even if it meant breaking existing laws. Here are some fascinating facts about the Shapiro-King connection.


From YouTube, here are excerpts of King’s famous letter, performed by a young student in a Houston public-speaking competition.