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Posted: April 02, 2018

Stabbing nearly took Martin Luther King Jr.’s life decade before assassin's bullet

By Crystal Bonvillian, Cox Media Group National Content Desk


The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a young, rising star in the burgeoning civil rights movement in September 1958, when he sat signing copies of his first book in a Harlem department store.

King, then just 29 years old, was approached by a seemingly unassuming woman, who was stylishly dressed in a suit, jewelry and cat’s eye glasses, The New York Times wrote in 2015

“Are you Martin Luther King?” the woman asked.

“Yes,” King replied, not looking up from where he was signing a copy of “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story.”

A second later, Izola Ware Curry plunged a 7-inch, ivory-handled steel letter opener into King’s chest. 

Nestled in her bra was a loaded .25-caliber automatic pistol, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last year. She was stopped before she could get to it.

Curry, 42, did not try to run.

“I’ve been after him for six years,” Curry said at the scene. “I’m glad I done it.”

>> Related: Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

(Getty Images)
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is surrounded by his mother, Alberta Williams King, and his wife, Coretta Scott King, during a Sept. 30, 1958, news conference at Harlem Hospital, where he was recovering from being stabbed in the chest 10 days earlier at a book signing for his first book.

A photo from that day shows King calmly being attended to by supporters as the handle of the letter opener protrudes from his chest. A woman wipes blood from his hands, one of which suffered a minor flesh wound when he instinctively tried to ward off the blow.

The freelance photographer who shot the photo, Vernoll Coleman, told the New York Daily News in a story originally published on Sept. 21, 1958, the day after the stabbing, that King did not seem to realize he’d been stabbed. 

“Dr. King held his right hand after the stabbing,” Coleman told the Daily News. 

Coleman’s photo, which can be seen here, belies the seriousness of King’s wound. The steel blade came to rest against his heart and it took doctors hours of delicate surgery to remove it without killing him. 

King’s doctors told him that if he had so much as sneezed, he would have died, he later said. 

He talked about the stabbing in his “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech, which he delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, the day before he was cut down by an assassin’s bullet. King was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. 

“That blade had gone through and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery,” King said that night. “And once that’s punctured, you’re drowned in your own blood -- that’s the end of you.”

He told his audience that he never forgot one particular letter he received as he recuperated, from a high school ninth-grader. 

“She said, ‘While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl,’” he said. “‘I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.’”

King said that he, too, was grateful he did not sneeze. If he had died, he would have missed the students protesting by sitting at whites-only lunch counters, he would have missed the Freedom Rides designed to force enforcement of the integration of city buses. 

He would never have given his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 at the March on Washington, nor seen the violent protests in Birmingham, Alabama, that helped lead to the passage the following year of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

He would have missed participation in the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march to demand equality in the voting booths.

“I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze,” King said in that final speech

Listen to his entire final speech below.

The civil rights icon was gunned down the following day as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to the assassination, though he later recanted and rumors of a conspiracy swirl around the killing to this day. 

Curry, a Georgia native who had lived in multiple states as her mental health deteriorated over the years, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and, at the time of the stabbing, had an IQ of about 70, the Journal-Constitution reported. She was found unfit to stand trial.

The Times reported that for years before she stabbed King, she had delusions that the NAACP was a Communist front and that its members were persecuting her, keeping her from being able to find and maintain a steady job. Over time, those delusions centered more and more on King. 

(Getty Images)
Izola Ware Curry, 42, is led away by police following her arrest Sept. 20, 1958, for stabbing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the chest during a book signing in Harlem. Curry, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, was found unfit to stand trial and spent the rest of her life institutionalized.

“She confesses that many of those whom she accuses of persecuting her, she does not know personally,” doctors wrote in a psychiatric report obtained by The Smoking Gun in 2014. The report is dated Oct. 22, 1958, just over a month after Curry stabbed King. 

“She has moved about in many states of this country in order to avoid her persecutors, but without success,” the report continued. “She believes she has been under constant surveillance and all her movements are known to the NAACP and Dr. King. She has feared for her life and for the past year has been carrying a gun to protect herself against possible assault.”

The report stated that Curry also threatened to sue multiple newspapers over their account of the stabbing, “which she feels was completely justified … despite the fact that she has had no personal relationship with the victim of her assault.”

Because of her mental condition, she spent the remainder of her life in a number of psychiatric facilities. 

She died March 7, 2015 in a nursing home in Queens, according to the Times. She was 98 years old. 


What You Need To Know: Martin Luther King Jr.

What You Need To Know: Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr.: How the world heard the news of his assassination

April 4 marked the 50th anniversary of the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. King, the leader of the non-violent movement for civil rights in the 1960s, had come to Memphis the day before to help sanitation workers rally for better wages and safer working conditions.

That evening, as King stood on a balcony at the Loraine Motel, he was mortally wounded by a bullet from a rifle believed to have been fired from a rooming house across the street from the Loraine. King was hit in the jaw and knocked unconscious. He was pronounced dead at the St. Joseph’s Hospital about an hour later, having never regained consciousness.

Here is how the world learned and reacted to the news of King’s assassination: 

What King said night before he was murdered: 

King came to Memphis in early April 1968 to help striking sanitation workers in their protests for better wages and safer working conditions. On April 3, King addressed a gathering at the Mason Temple in Memphis. He said he did not feel well and did not want to go, but went anyway on the urging of his aides. King stood before the crowd and spoke extemporaneously for more than 40 minutes. The speech turned out to be prophetic as King told those gathered he had “been to the mountaintop,” but that he may not “get there with you.” Here is that speech:

Click here for a look at King’s life, death and legacy.

The obituariesFrom the New York Times:

Martin Luther King Jr.: Leader of Millions in Nonviolent Drive for Racial Justice

“To many million of American Negroes, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the prophet of their crusade for racial equality. He was their voice of anguish, their eloquence in humiliation, their battle cry for human dignity. He forged for them the weapons of nonviolence that withstood and blunted the ferocity of segregation.

“And to many millions of American whites, he was one of a group of Negroes who preserved the bridge of communication between races when racial warfare threatened the United States in the nineteen-sixties, as Negroes sought the full emancipation pledged to them a century before by Abraham Lincoln.

“To the world, Dr. King had the stature that accrued to a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, a man with access to the White House and the Vatican; a veritable hero in the African states that were just emerging from colonialism.” (Click here to continue reading)

From the Chicago Tribune

Riots follow killing of Martin Luther King Jr.

“Before darkness fell on this day, a Friday, the plumes of smoke from the West Side already were visible to Loop office workers. In Chicago and across the nation, rioting was breaking out in response to the news that Martin Luther King Jr. had been gunned down in Memphis the day before.” (Click here to continue reading)

Robert Kennedy breaking the news

On April 4, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was in Indianapolis, campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president when he was told of the assassination of King. His staff tried to dissuade Kennedy from going to speak to the crowd in a predominately black neighborhood in the city, as news of riots were beginning to spread.

Kennedy insisted on going to the corner of 17th Avenue and Broadway and talking with the people gathered there. Kennedy began by breaking the news that King had been shot and killed, then called for calm and reminded those gathered that he, too, had had a family member killed and that his family member (his brother, John F. Kennedy) was killed by a white man.

Here is Kennedy’s speech that night.

President Lyndon Johnson’s response

Johnson was notified of King’s assassination as he readied for a trip to Hawaii. He postponed the trip, called King’s wife to offer condolences and declared April 7 a national day of mourning.

The front pages

To see how the world reacted to King’s assassination, click here.

From television:

Walter Cronkite on CBS  

ABC News

NBC News

WBS radio tribute

Coretta Scott King two days after her husband’s assassination

Through the Years: Martin Luther King Jr.

Through the Years: Martin Luther King Jr.

AP Photos

Stabbing nearly took MLK's life decade before assassin's bullet

AP Photos

Stabbing nearly took MLK's life decade before assassin's bullet

Izola Ware Curry, left, enters a New York City police station Sept. 20, 1958, after stabbing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the chest during a book signing at a Harlem department store. At right, King recovers at Harlem Hospital following surgery to remove a steel letter opener, the tip of which was lodged against his heart.

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