In A Nutshell
In 1958, Martin Luther King Jr. was performing a book signing in a Harlem book store. He was confronted by one Izola Curry, a 42-year-old mentally ill black woman. She stabbed him with a letter opener and came so close to killing him instantly that the blade was against his aorta. It was later determined that if King had so much as sneezed after the stabbing it might have killed him. True to form, he said of it “I think she needs help.”
The Whole Bushel
Martin Luther King Jr. is so respected and so significant today that society constantly looks for ways to blemish his image. We like to hear about his marital infidelity and we’re all probably anticipating the time in 2027 when the recordings the FBI illegally obtained of him will be declassified. J. Edgar Hoover promised that it includes audio of him having sex and joking about the recent death of Kennedy among other things. But one particularly dark episode from his life is not often discussed, considering the impact it could have had on the civil rights movement.
On September 20, 1958, King was in Harlem doing a signing for his book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. There, in Blumstein’s Department Store, he had the misfortune to run into Izola Curry, a 42-year-old black housekeeper from Adrian, Georgia. When she met him, she confirmed that the person she was addressing really was Dr. King and then stabbed him in the chest with an 18-centimeter (7 in) letter opener she took from her purse. When Curry was later apprehended by the police, it was revealed that she also had a loaded gun in her possession.
Curry was operating under the belief that King’s actions in Alabama had forced her and other people like her to change jobs and religion in addition to suspicions that that King was connected to the Communist Party. In fact when she was told of the charges that were going to be filed against her, she said “I’m charging him as well as he’s charging me!” She would later be diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and went into Matteawan State Hospital without standing trial. It has not been made public information whether or not she is still alive. Unlike later assassin James Earl Ray, to date there has not been an effort to connect her actions to any sort of government conspiracy.
The letter opener lodged in Martin Luther King Jr. almost killed him instantly. An analysis of the wound, as King wrote in his autobiography, found that if he had so much as sneezed, it could have cut his aorta. As it was, it took two hours of intense surgery to remove it. Press at the time and a later documentary called When Harlem Saved a King made the point that both white and black surgeons worked to save his life. It’s an understandable point to make since a black woman attempting to kill someone seeking civil rights for blacks might be used by racist propaganda to cast African Americans in a negative light. King, true to form, said of the incident while he was still in the hospital room “I’m not angry with her. I think she needs help.”