Celebrated Civil Rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as the premier spokesperson for the movement because his youth, oratory skill, and effective demonstrations proved he was at the forefront of changing times for Blacks in America. On the heels of his successful “Montgomery Bus Boycott” in 1955 and after forming the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with Ralph Abernathy and others, King’s star was on the rise. In 1958, however, things nearly came to a crashing halt, after an African-American woman plunged a knife in to the chest of King in Harlem on this day in 1958.
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Although the incident is barely discussed in the history of Dr. King, the moment was especially jarring considering King could have lost his life as a result of the attack. While signing copies of the recently published book “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story” in Harlem’s Blumstein’s department store, 42-year-old Izola Curry (pictured right) walked up to King and stabbed him in the upper left chest area with a steel letter opener.
King was immediately rushed to Harlem Hospital, where doctors reportedly said that if he sneezed, it would have ruptured his aorta and killed him instantly.
True to his public stance, King held no malice toward Curry and instead responded to the attack compassionately. He mentioned the stabbing after returning to Montgomery, Ala., in October that same year, while speaking to supporters at Dennelly Field Airport:
I am deeply sorry that a deranged woman should have injured herself in seeking to injure me. I can say, in all sincerity, that I bear no bitterness toward her and I have felt no resentment from the sad moment that the experience occurred.
I know that we want her to receive the necessary treatment so that she may become a constructive citizen in an integrated society where a disorganized personality need not become a menace to any man.
Arrested on the scene, Curry was also found to have a loaded gun on her person and spoke in a disconnected fashion. She believed that the NAACP and King were “boycotting and “torturing” her. Curry also thought that King and other leaders caused her to lose her job and that they were mired in Communist politics.
“If it wasn’t him, it would have been me; he was going to kill me,” said Curry to police after her arrest. She was later committed to Bellevue Hospital for observation and declared unfit to stand trial. In October, she was sent to Matteawan State Hospital for the criminally insane.
Author Hugh Pearson released a book discussing the little-known moment in time in the 2004 title “When Harlem Nearly Killed King.” Pearson dug deep and alleged that King snubbed a Black bookshop owner for the signing event by instead opting to go with the Jewish department store owners. The book also discusses that the surgeon who claimed to save King’s life didn’t even complete the operation.
No matter the greater details, King’s legacy remains intact and his ability to look past the attempt on his life speaks volumes about his character and life’s mission.