On the afternoon of Sept. 20, 1958, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was autographing books in the shoe section of Blumstein’s Department Store in Harlem when a well-dressed woman wearing rhinestone glasses stepped out of the long line and shouted: “Is this Martin Luther King?”
King looked up from signing copies of his first book, “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story,” his memoir about the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott.
The year-long boycott had led to a Supreme Court ruling that racial segregation on public buses was unconstitutional. And King, its leader was rising in national and international prominence.
King, then 29, answered: “Yes, it is.”
That’s when Izola Ware Curry, the black daughter of sharecroppers, pulled a letter opener with an ivory handle from her purse and swung at King. The civil rights leader tried to block the attack. Curry sliced King’s hand before plunging a seven-inch blade into the left side of King’s chest, according to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.
“King, Negro Boycott Leader, Stabbed Here,” blared a Sept. 21, 1958, headline in the New York Daily News, which reported that the police had arrested Curry, 42, outside the department store as she was trying to get into a taxi.
“A passerby quoted her as shouting, ‘I’ve been after him for six years,’ ” according to the Daily News. “I’m glad I done it.”
“Detectives said she apparently was a mental case,” according to a 1958 Associated Press report. “And had a loaded pistol concealed in the front of her dress.”
Amazingly, a photographer captured an image of King immediately after the attack. The photograph shows King sitting in a chair, with the letter opener still in chest. King was rushed to Harlem Hospital, where police detectives — fearing King might die immediately from the wound — took Curry to his bed so he could identify her.
King, who still had the blade in his chest, was composed. He identified the woman as his attacker before before he was rushed into a four-hour surgery. Two of his ribs and part of his breast plate were removed. Doctors later told him that had he sneezed, the blade, which was lodged near his aorta, could have killed him.
A decade later, on the night before his assassination, King described the stabbing in his famous “Mountaintop” sermon. It was his final address, delivered April 3, 1968, in Memphis, where King had returned to support a sanitation workers’ strike.
The sermon at Bishop Charles Mason Temple was prescient. “And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you,” King told the crowd, recalling the moment he was attacked.
“The next minute I felt something beating on my chest,” King recalled. “Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And 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. And once that’s punctured you’ve drowned in your own blood, that’s the end of you. It came out in the New York Times the next morning that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died.”
During King’s recovery in the hospital, he received letters from across the country and the world.
“I had received one from the president and the vice president; I've forgotten what those telegrams said. I'd received a visit and a letter from the governor of New York, but I've forgotten what that letter said,” King explained.
The letter he remembered came from a young girl.
“It said simply, ‘Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School,’ “King recalled. “She said, ‘While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I'm a white girl. 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.’ "
The crowd in the church rose in applause.
“I want to say tonight that I, too, am happy that I didn’t sneeze,” King continued. “Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting in at lunch counters.”
King hit his stride in the sermon, declaring: “If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in interstate travel.
“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.
“If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.
“If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had.
“If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great movement there. If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering. I'm so happy that I didn't sneeze.”
King said he’d heard the threats against him by white supremacists in Memphis, “what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers.” But King said he was unafraid.
Then King brought the sermon home.
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life — longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land.”
Someone shouted, “Go ahead!”
Then King told the crowd, “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so, I'm happy tonight; I'm not worried about anything; I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The next evening, as King was preparing to go to dinner at the home of a local minister, he was fatally shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
Read more Retropolis: