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.”
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.
“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.
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