How the New York Times Screwed Martin Luther King Jr.

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Harvey Shapiro would have likely preferred to be remembered as a poet, and perhaps also as one of the better editors of the New York Times Book Review. But his Jan. 7 Times obituary plays up another aspect of his life of which I was previously unaware. It was Shapiro, then an editor at the New York Times Magazine, who assigned Martin Luther King Jr. to write his 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” which today ranks as one of the preeminent literary-historical documents of the 20th century.

The assignment would have assured Shapiro a place in magazine-editor heaven if the Times Magazine had published the result. But it didn’t. Rejected, the letter ended up (under the headline, “The Negro Is Your Brother”) in the Atlantic. The Times Magazine’s role here ranks well above William Styron’s rejection, as a reader at McGraw-Hill, of Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki as one of the great busted plays in American publishing.

According to Diane McWhorter’s Carry Me Home: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution, Shapiro phoned the offices of King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in July 1962. King was doing jail time in Albany, Georgia, on charges of disturbing the peace while protesting the segregation of public facilities. Shapiro suggested that King write a “letter from prison” modeled on those of early Christian saints; Shapiro may also have been thinking about another 20th century political martyr and Christian minister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But (according to Taylor Branch’s Parting The Waters: America In The King Years, 1954-1963) one of King’s lawyers, Chauncey Eskridge, worried that the letter might get published before King was released from jail and compound his legal problems. Before a decision could be made, King was set free.

The following May, King was once again in jail for staging a nonviolent protest, this time in Birmingham, Alabama. King remembered Shapiro’s offer and was anxious to reply to “An Appeal For Law and Order and Common Sense,” a muddle-headed brief for compromise published in the Birmingham News a few days before by eight white Alabama clergymen. King scribbled a response in the margins of the newspaper, on toilet paper, and and on other scraps that his lawyers sneaked out to the SCLC’s executive director, Wyatt Walker, who got it transcribed. Walker passed drafts back and forth through the lawyers until King was satisfied.

Up north at the Times Magazine, Shapiro was eager to publish, but (according to McWhorter) he “could not get the letter past his bosses at the Times.” Way to go, Gray Lady!

The Times, S. Jonathan Bass reports in Blessed Are The Peacemakers: Martin Luther King, Eight White Religious Leaders, and the ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail,’ initially scheduled the letter for publication in late May. But first it wanted (in the recollection of King adviser Stanley Levison) a “little introduction setting forth the circumstances of the piece.” Then it decided, no, what it really wanted was for King to “write a feature article based on the letter.” Or, possibly, it wanted both. Before King had a chance to jump through these hoops, the New York Post (in those distant days a plausible rival to the Times) got a copy of the letter and published unauthorized excerpts, killing the Times’s interest.

“You have to keep in mind,” Barnard sociologist Jonathan Rieder informed me by e-mail, “that by the end of May and into June, there were lots of venues publishing variants and selections of the letter, and King and his people had not yet secured copyright.” (Rieder is author of the forthcoming Gospel Of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed A Nation.) After the Times passed on "Letter From Birmingham Jail," it was published in Liberation, Christian Century and The New Leader in addition to the Atlantic.

There aren’t many respects in which I can even guess what it would have been like to be Martin Luther King, but this (highly circumscribed) instance is one of them. The Times Magazine was, in those days, a notoriously Politburo-like redoubt of editing-by-committee. It still was in the late 1980s, when I, too, had the experience of getting dicked around there. Like King, I was assigned a piece; like King, I was told to rewrite it (twice in my case, each editorial instruction contradicting the previous one); and like King, I saw my sweaty labors rewarded with the spike. My article, which ended up in the Washington Monthly, was--needless to say--many million light years short of “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” But the assigning editor, coincidentally, had once covered the Selma voting-rights marches.

Canvass journalists from that era and you will hear many such stories. At the time I expressed my frustration with (as it happens) Taylor Branch, who I knew through the Washington Monthly, where we were (and remain) contributing editors. Branch told me he'd long ago given up writing for the Times Magazine. Every time he turned in a story, he said, they’d give it to the beat reporter who covered the topic, who of course could only view such work as a potential reproach. In time-honored newsroom tradition, the beat reporter would either piss all over it or say he’d reported the same thing six months ago. “I actually think it’s a conflict of interest for a newspaper to have a Sunday magazine,” Branch told me. 

The Times Magazine’s Augean stables were eventually cleaned out in the 1990s by editor Adam Moss, who streamlined the editing process, removed the beat-reporter veto option, and greatly improved the magazine. (I was pleasantly surprised to find my second experience with the magazine a much happier one.) Even so, the Times Magazine (today loaded up, alas, with twee concept-heavy short running features) never published anything whose significance even approaches that of “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Give Shapiro, rest his soul, credit at least for trying.

 

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