January 21, 2013

The story behind MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”


MLK’s often-anthologized “Letter from Birmingham Jail” has a backstory that involves poet and editor Harvey Shapiro.

Harvey Shapiro — a poet who wrote about New York City and urban life, and whose poems were featured in the very first book Melville House published, Poetry After 9/11 — recently passed away on January 7 at the age of 88.

An obituary in the New York Times mentions that while he was an editor at the Times Magazine, Shapiro played a role in what became Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In a blog post, Patrick Kiger explains:

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.

King’s letter is a key civil rights text; in it he argued that the fight against racial segregation had to be taken to the streets, and included the famous line “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” But as McWhorter describes out in her 2001 book Carry Me Home, Shapiro was unsuccessful in convincing the magazine to print it.

Excerpts of the letter were later published in The New York Post Sunday, and then it was subsequently printed in its entirety in Liberation, The Christian Century, The New Leader, and the The Atlantic Monthly.

A tribute to Harvey Shapiro aired last Sunday on The Next Hour on WBAI (it can be streamed or downloaded under Cat Radio Cafe on January 13th on this page), featuring poets Hugh Seidman and Bill Zavatsky, Library of America editor-in-chief Geoffrey O’Brien, and author Maggie Paley.



Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.