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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 Magazine - who 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.

  • According to civil rights movement historian Diane McWhorter, Shapiro actually came up with idea for a jail letter nine months before King wrote it. In July 1962, while King was imprisoned in Albany, Ga., Shapiro telephoned the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta and suggested that King should write a "letter from prison," in the fashion of other political prisoners. But when King was released just three days into his 45 day sentence, he had no time to write.
  • After King was arrested again and jailed in Birmingham, Ala., in April 1963, he was dismayed when both the national and local news media criticized him as an extremist, according to historian Taylor Branch. A particular sore point was an article in the local Birmingham News, titled "White Clergymen Urge Local Negroes to Withdraw from Demonstrations." King actually began scribbling his response in the margins of that article. Scraps of paper containing the handwritten version were smuggled out of the jail, where a King aide then laboriously deciphered King's "chickenscratch handwriting" and dictated it over the phone to a typist.
  • Despite Shapiro's role in the Birmingham letter, the Times didn't publish it. According to historian S. Jonathan Bass, after King completed the letter in mid-April, several of King's associates contacted Shapiro to tell him that King had written the letter. Because national and international attention was focused on the struggle in Birmingham, Shapiro initially tried to talk King into expanding the letter into a feature article, but the civil rights leader didn't have the time. Instead, the editors of the Times decided to publish an edited version of King's letter in the May 26, 1963, edition of the newspaper. But they waited too long. The rival New York Post somehow obtained a copy of the letter and published excerpts without King's permission. That led the Times to cancel its publication. Ultimately, the complete letter was published on May 27 in a religious journal, Christianity and Crisis, and subsequently reprinted elsewhere.


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


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