“Is this Martin Luther King?”
That is the question, a simple one, that Izola Ware Curry asked Martin Luther King Jr. at a Sept. 20, 1958 book signing in Harlem.
The 42-year-old 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.”
As the nation prepares for the 50th anniversary of the 1968 assassination of the civil rights icon, his 1958 stabbing has been largely forgotten, although he said on the eve of his death a decade later, that had he merely sneezed, it would have killed him.
The tip of Curry’s blade, King said, was on the edge of his aorta, “And once that’s punctured, you’re drowned in your own blood — that’s the end of you.”
“The idea of killing him was unthinkable,” said the Rev. C.T. Vivian, who would go on to work with King in the 1960s. “We saw no reason for it to have happened. To have someone try to kill him was not expected.”
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 this week, 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.
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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; Cleveland; St. Louis; Charleston, W.Va.; Savannah; Miami, West Palm Beach and Daytona Beach, Fla.; Lexington, Ky.; and Columbia, S.C.
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.”
Out of body experience
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,” Young recalled. “This is a routine procedure for them. People are getting stabbed in Harlem three-four times a week.”
King was rushed to Harlem Hospital for emergency surgery.
“He said later when he was in the hospital, he was asleep in a semi-coma, but aware of the preachers praying over him,” Young said. “For him, it was like an out of body experience, where he felt like he was up on the ceiling looking down at them praying. Most of them wanted him to go and he said, ‘don’t worry, you gotta put up with me a little while longer.’”
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 and “leaving behind only a single deed of mysterious, unfathomable horror,” wrote Taylor Branch in his King biography, “Parting the Waters.”
Branch devoted only two pages to the incident in his book. David Garrow, in his massive Pulitzer Prize-winning King biography, “Bearing the Cross,” gave it three pages.
“People have kind of forgotten about the stabbing because he lived,” said King biographer Clayborne Carson, the author of the "Papers of Martin Luther King Jr.," “That is the bottom line.”
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.
“I want to say tonight — I want to say tonight that I, too, am happy that I didn’t sneeze,” King told the congregation at Mason Temple that night. “If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can't ride your back unless it is bent.”
King continued that if he had sneezed, he would have not have seen the Freedom Rides of the early ’60s. He would not have given his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington in 1963. 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.”
Echoing Young, Vivian agrees that the decade following the assassination attempt and King’s actual death was crucial.
“There were very few people who could celebrate and act upon nonviolence as a means to change society,” Vivian said this week. “Had it not been for Martin King, we would not have had a great movement.”
Carson, the King biographer, says it might be a stretch to suggest that the movement would have stopped had King died in 1958.
King was stabbed that year, in the middle of a period where he was still finding himself as a leader, said Carson, the director of Stanford University's Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute.
King had successfully led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which ended on Dec. 20, 1956. But between 1956 and the end of 1962, while King was still perhaps the most visible civil rights leader, the actions of others were eclipsing him.
Little Rock happened without him in 1957. The Greensboro Sit-ins in 1960. The Freedom Riders in 1961.
“It is hard for me to imagine that the students who launched the sit-ins were waiting for an okay from Martin Luther King,” Carson said. “King was trying to catch up with a movement that was going at a faster pace than he was able to provide.”
King caught up in 1963 and solidified his place as the movement’s leader by leading the Birmingham Campaign. That was followed in quick succession by the March on Washington, the Nobel Prize, Selma and the Civil Rights Act.
On April 4, 1968, a day after King preached about a world without him and almost 10 years to the day that Curry stabbed him, he was shot to death by James Earl Ray.
“Everything that happened to him, happened to him to make him stronger. But he knew that any day could be his last,” Young said. “He said that you are going to die and you have nothing to say about when you die. But you can decide what you gave your life for. He used to preach that.”
Curry meanwhile languished in obscurity. 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.