Last January, in noting the passing of poet/editor Harvey Shapiro, I mentioned that he had assigned for The New York Times Magazine the famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr.—but it was killed by the Times.
Tim Noah has looked at why at The New Republic, under the title, “How the New York Times Screwed Martin Luther King, Jr.” Noah aptly describes the 1963 essay “one of the preeminent literary-historical documents of the 20th century.”
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.
Of course, it later appeared in The Atlantic in full.
I wrote a couple of pieces for the magazine in the early 1980s, and I can confirm Noah’s comment: “The Times Magazine was, in those days, a notoriously Politburo-like redoubt of editing-by-committee.” Noah:
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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