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What would the American Civil Rights Movement have been without the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? On September 20, 1958, we almost lost him.

The weather boded well for a good turnout. It was a sunny Saturday in New York City and Blumstein’s Department Store – at  230 W. 125th Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues, Harlem – was hustling to get ready for their big guest. On the ground floor, behind the shoe department, clerks had roped off an area where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would sit behind a desk to autograph copies of his first book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. 

The book related the success of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott that lead to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the unconstitutionality of segregated transit systems.

wo black ministers who were active in the long boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama were among the first to ride after a Supreme Court integration order went into effect on December 21, 1956. At left, front seat, is the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, while at left in the second seat is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Beside King is white minister, Rev. Glenn Smiley of New York, who said he was in Montgomery as an observer.

Two black ministers who were active in the long boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama were among the first to ride after a Supreme Court integration order went into effect on December 21, 1956. At right, is the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, while at left is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Black Americans no longer had to sit at the back of the bus or give up their seats to white people.

Dr. King, with his powerful oratory, had rocketed to fame nearly overnight and had become a significant figure on the national political scene for his participation in the victory. He was making four speeches a week to persuade the nation to stop the practice of racial segregation. It was the dawn of the civil rights movement.

“Dr. King is a rather soft-spoken man with a learning and maturity far beyond his 27 years. His clothes are in conservative good taste and he has a small trim mustache.”(1)

Izola Ware Curry

Blumstein’s Department Store – the site of the autograph party for Dr. King – wasn’t far from where Izola Ware Curry, 42, lived in a brownstone, at 121 West 122d Street in Harlem. Izola was a drifter, a sometimes maid, who had been in Harlem only two months. Izola had Dr. King on her radar. She detested him and all black preachers, calling their boycotts and protests a sham. She felt that blacks should move for social change through appeals to Congress. She hated the NAACP in particular – thought they were controlled by Communists – and white people in general. By 1956, paranoia had taken over her thinking. She started writing the FBI claiming that Communists were out to get her. She was anti-social, tended to babble and rant, her words often unintelligible and ungrammatical. Her neighbors wrote her off as “eccentric.” Izola Ware Curry was African-American.

The Rally The Night Before the Signing

The night before Dr. King’s book signing, just around the corner from Blumstein’s, a rally was held for Dr. King in front of the Hotel Teresa. On the podium he was joined by other dignitaries, among them baseball great Jackie Robinson, New York Governor Averell Harriman, and gubernatorial hopeful, Republican Nelson Rockefeller, with music provided by Duke Ellington. The crowd numbered 5,000. Izola Ware Curry, in her unstable mental state, was there.

When Rockefeller spoke:

This business about [Eisenhower] going slow on integration….I know the man!….Who sent the troops to Little Rock?”(2)

Curry heckled him, calling white people racists. King’s escort in the city, William Rowe,

“did his best to calm her down. And Frederick Weaver, a platform guest, motioned for police officers to make her stop. But the police were reluctant to get tough with her, fearing…an incident…that could escalate into a larger racial disturbance.” (2)

When Dr. King spoke, Curry jeered him, too, as did a few others. Curry shouted that no “negro” should ever try to cooperate with a white person. Rowe had to calm her down once more.

Miraculously, the rally ended without dissolving into chaos. Rowe feared more trouble at the next day’s signing, suggesting a bodyguard for Dr. King, an idea that Dr. King rejected.

The Booksigning

Saturday, September 20, 1958

Blumstein’s Department Store

3:30 p.m.

Izola Ware Curry, 42

Izola Ware Curry, 42

As she pushed her way through the crowd to the desk where Dr. King sat, bystanders couldn’t help but notice the elegantly dressed black woman in her stylish suit, showy jewelry, and sequined cat’s-eyeglasses. Nothing on the surface betrayed the insanity beneath. Little did onlookers suspect that, secreted in Izola Curry’s bra, was a loaded Italian automatic pistol, and, in her enormous leather purse, a 7-inch steel leather opener.

With her purse slung over one arm, Izola Curry strode with purpose straight up to Dr. King, where he was seated, signing a book for a customer.

“Are you Martin Luther King?” she asked.

“Yes,” he replied, not looking up. (3)

She reached into her purse and withdrew the letter opener in an arc. Instinctively, Dr. King yanked his left arm up to block the weapon, cutting his left hand as she plunged the blade into his chest. Dr. King recalled:

“The next minute I felt something beating on my chest.”

A bystander knocked Curry’s hand away from the blade before she could withdraw it and stab Dr. King again.

“I’ve been after him for six years!” shouted Curry, starting to run. “I’m glad I done it!” (2)

A group of women chased her with umbrellas, shouting, “Catch her!” A journalist jumped out and grabbed Curry by the left arm and turned her over to the store security guard, who handcuffed her.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sits calmly with a letter opener protruding from his chest as Nettie C. Jackson tends his cut hand. September 20, 1958

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sits calmly with a letter opener protruding from his chest as Nettie C. Jackson tends his cut hand. September 20, 1958

Meanwhile, Dr. King sat still and calm and clear-thinking, with the letter opener protruding from his chest. Someone called for an ambulance to Harlem Hospital. Dr. King was carried, still seated in his chair, to the back of the store. When the ambulance arrived, he was placed carefully on his back. He was told, as was everyone present, that he must not touch the letter opener.

The stabbing nearly cost Dr. King his life, as the blade of the letter opener had lodged in his sternum, within millimeters of piercing the aorta. At Harlem Hospital, surgeons extracted the blade in a delicate operation. He developed pneumonia and had a long convalescence.

Surgeons performed a delicate 2 1/4 hour surgery to extract the letter opener from Dr. Martin Luther King's manubrium, the top bone of the sternum. September 20, 1958

Surgeons performed a delicate 2 1/4 hour surgery to extract the letter opener from Dr. Martin Luther King’s manubrium, the top bone of the sternum. September 20, 1958

A rare photograph of the operation on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, when he was stabbed in Harlem on September 20, 1958

A rare photograph of the operation on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, when he was stabbed in Harlem on September 20, 1958

Izola Ware Curry, Dr. Martin Luther King's assailant. Following her arrest, psychiatrists evaluated her and diagnosed her with paranoid schizophrenia and an I.Q. of about 70. She was institutionalized and died in 2015, at the age of 98. (Getty Images)

Izola Ware Curry, Dr. Martin Luther King’s assailant. Following her arrest, psychiatrists evaluated her and diagnosed her with paranoid schizophrenia and an I.Q. of about 70. She was institutionalized and died in 2015, at the age of 98. (Getty Images)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is embraced by his wife Coretta Scott King during a news conference at Harlem Hospital in New York, Sept 30, 1958, where he is recovering from a stab wound following an attack by a woman. At left is his mother, Alberta Williams King. (AP Photo/Tony Camerano)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is embraced by his wife Coretta Scott King during a news conference at Harlem Hospital in New York, Sept 30, 1958, where he was recovering from a stab wound following an attack by Izola Ware Curry. At left is his mother, Alberta Williams King. (AP Photo/Tony Camerano)

Ten Years Later

On April 3, 1968, ten years after the Harlem stabbing, Dr. King recalled it in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech in Memphis, Tennessee:

“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’re drowned in your own blood – that’s the end of you.”

The surgeon told him that, if he had sneezed before the operation, he would have died. To lively applause, he continued, in his “Mountaintop” speech:

“And I want to say tonight – I want to say tonight that I, too, am happy that I didn’t sneeze. 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. 

 “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 here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Ala., 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 I had.”

He closed his speech with remarks about the possibility of his untimely death. The next day, in Memphis, he was assassinated by James Earl Ray, a white supremacist.

(1) “Battle Against Tradition: Martin Luther King, Jr.” The New York Times, March 21, 1956

(2) Pearson, Hugh. When Harlem Nearly Killed King. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003.

(3) “Izola Ware Curry, Who Stabbed King in 1958, Dies at 98.” New York Times. March 22, 2015.

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Credit:-/AFP/Getty Images

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Credit:-/AFP/Getty Images

On Aug. 28, 1963,  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his rousing, “I Have a Dream” speech to over 250,000 civil rights supporters gathered for the March on Washington. The speech calls for an end to racism in America. It was considered by many to be the most important speech of the Twentieth Century and helped advance President John F. Kennedy‘s important civil rights legislation then in Congress.

At the March on Washington, August 1963, peaceful African-Americans called for decent jobs with equal pay.

At the March on Washington, August 1963, peaceful African-Americans called for decent jobs with equal pay.

Dr. King timed his March on Washington to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln‘s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation which freed millions of American black slaves in 1863.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stands in front of the statue of President Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C. ca. 1963

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stands in front of the statue of President Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C. ca. 1963

His opening lines in his speech evoke the Gettysburg Address by President Lincoln:

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity.” 

Dr. King asked for justice to be made a reality for all of God’s children.

We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities….

We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only”. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. “(1)

He spoke of his dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’


I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.'”

***

Fast forward to August 28, 2013, the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s March on Washington and his landmark speech. 

Anderson Cooper of CNN is interviewing African-American writer Maya Angelou (1928-2014). They reflect on the state of Dr. King’s dream. Maya Angelou knew Dr. King and was part of the struggle for civil rights change in this country.

Cooper: Do you believe that the arc of history is moving in the right direction? President Obama, recently, when he was talking about Trayvon Martin, he said that he looks at his daughters and that his daughters’ generation is better than his generation was. Do you believe that?

Angelou: Yes, I do. I know that there was a time when people were lynched with everybody’s agreement – not everybody – but with the “Might’s” agreement. The might was white and white was might and so people were lynched.

I grew up in a village in Arkansas where a man was lynched and the skin of his body – after being lynched and burned – the skin was taken off in skin the size of a postage stamp and given to people as mementoes.

You can’t do that in the United States today. I mean you can lynch people and murder people in many ways but you can’t do it in the city square.

Cooper: Hmm.

Angelou: You see? We are better. Not nearly enough. Not nearly enough. But we come and we have to admit that. Because, Mr. Cooper, if we don’t, young people will say, ‘You mean to tell me, with the lives and deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Rosa Parks and the Kennedys, then there’s no point in me trying, because those people were bigger than life.’ So we have to say, ‘You have come a long way.’

***

President Barack Obama spoke from the Lincoln Memorial steps to honor the half-century anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic speech, “I Have a Dream.” August 28, 2013.

Our first African-American president was on hand at the Fiftieth Anniversary of the March on Washington Celebration. Like Dr. King, President Barack Obama is a great orator. In his speech to those gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, he echoed Maya Angelou’s sentiment in regard to the civil rights movement, progress, and where America stands.

To dismiss the magnitude of this progress, to suggest as some sometimes do that little has changed, that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years.”

Members of Dr. King’s family, including his then 5-year-old granddaughter, Yolanda King, were present as bells rang at 3 p.m. to mark the historical moment.

President Obama greets Yolanda King, age 5, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s granddaughter at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. August 28, 2013. Credit; Getty Images

President Obama greets Yolanda King, age 5, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s granddaughter at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. August 28, 2013. Credit; Getty Images

For more on Maya Angelou, click here.

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