Remembering the 1958 assassination attempt on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

September 26, 2019

King leaving Harlem Hospital with his wife, Coretta Scott King, and hospital staff after his discharge.

“Is this Martin Luther King?”

That is the question that Izola Ware Curry asked Martin Luther King, Jr., at a Sept 20, 1958 book signing in Harlem. The 42-yearold Curry had a distinctive Southern accent and was neatly dressed in a suit with matching jewelry and sequined cat’s-eye glasses. King was signing copies of his first book “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story,” at Blumstein’s Department Store. Only 29 at the time, King barely looked up when he replied, “Yes.” With that confirmation, Curry plunged a seven-inch steel letter opener into King’s chest. She was stopped before she could get her loaded .25-caliber automatic pistol out of her bra. She didn’t try to run.“I’ve been after him for six years,” Curry cried as she was apprehended. “I’m glad I done it.”

While many recognize the yearly anniversary of King’s 1968 assassination, his 1958 stabbing, which celebrated its 61st anniversary this past Friday, has been largely forgotten. Though undoubtedly had it been successful, it would have altered the course of the Civil Rights Movement. It did serve to emboldened Dr. King in this efforts for the cause.

Ambassador Andrew Young was living in New York City at the time working for the National Council of Churches. He knew King, but had not begun working with him. In fact, he was out of town at the time of the stabbing and can’t recall when he first heard about it. “News traveled differently then,” Young said adding that had King died that fall day, the very fate of the civil rights movement would have altered. “We wouldn’t have had it. It would have been something different.”

Who was Izola Ware Curry?

While history has largely forgotten the assassination attempt, the would-be assassin’s story is also shrouded in mystery. And while they would meet that one time at a store on West 125th Street in Harlem, they were both born with Georgia clay on their feet. Izola Ware was born to sharecroppers in 1916 in Adrian, about 100 miles from Savannah. She dropped out of school in the seventh grade and in 1937, when she was 21, she married a man named James Curry. The marriage lasted only six months and Curry moved to New York City working on and off as a housekeeper, short-order cook and factory worker. But a series of personal misfortunes, coupled with deteriorating mental health, soon led to paranoia and delusions in Curry.

In his 2002 book, “When Harlem Nearly Killed King: The 1958 Stabbing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Hugh Pearson wrote that Curry’s mental state had nearly incapacitated her before she reached 40. Unable to keep a job, she lived in New York and about ten other cities in the US. By 1958 she had made her way back to New York City where she lived in a rented room in Harlem. In a psychiatric report, published in 2014 by The Smoking Gun and dated Oct. 22, 1958, two psychiatrists wrote that Curry had become convinced that civil rights leaders were Communists plotting against her, making it difficult for her to obtain and retain a job. “She believes she has been under constant surveillance and all her movements are known to the NAACP and Dr. King,” they wrote. “She has feared for her life and for the past year has been carrying a gun to protect herself against possible assault.”

When Curry heard that King was just blocks from her rooming house, she seized her opportunity to get him. After he was stabbed, several newspapers printed a photo of King being tended to at the department store with the letter opener still protruding from his chest. “The blade, if somebody had tried to remove it, it would have killed him. He always said was he was glad that he got stabbed in Harlem,” King was rushed to Harlem Hospital, one of the earliest integrated hospitals in the city of New York, for emergency surgery. Dr. Emil Naclerio, a white doctor, and Dr. John Cordice, a black doctor, were called in to save the leader of a burgeoning movement.

Although she was charged with attempted first-degree murder and faced 25 years in prison, Curry was deemed unfit to stand trial. She had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia with an IQ of about 70 and in a “severe state of insanity.” Curry was committed to Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. She would spend the rest of her life in hospitals, mental institutions and nursing homes — virtually forgotten.

If King had sneezed

For his part, King said he “felt no ill will toward Mrs. Izola Curry,” and often referred to the stabbing, famously referencing it on the night of April 3, 1968 in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” speech. King said with the tip of the blade resting on his main artery, his doctors told him that had he sneezed, he would have died. He said that as he recovered from his injuries, a white girl wrote him a letter concluding that she was glad he didn’t sneeze. Using “sneeze,” as a literary trope, King riffed on what that action would have done to history.

Many of Dr. King’s greatest accomplishments came after the attack. Including his “I Have a Dream Speech,” won his Nobel Peace Prize; nor have seen the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering,” King said. “I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.”

After the attack

The attack emboldened Dr. King and help drive him and his cause, but he knew that any day could be his last. Harlem Hospital is still the only major medical center in Harlem. It has grown in size and has changed to meet health issues that have faced the African American community there.

In 2002, Blumstein’s Department Store was sold to Touro College, and now houses Touro’s College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Dr. Naclerio and Dr. Cordice would maintain a friendship with Dr. King after the stabbing and up until his death. The experience of saving the life of someone like Dr. King, profoundly affected their views on medicine and race, and became advocates for integrated staff and care later in their careers.

The Smoking Gun, in its 2014 profile, found Curry in a nursing home in Jamaica, Queens. Still alive, but “physically and mentally feeble.” “She met questions about King and the stabbing with a furrowed brow and a blank stare,” the profile said. Like so many others, she had no recollection of the attack. Curry died in 2015. She was 98.