A decade before MLK's assassination, a Black woman named Izola Ware Curry stabbed him with a letter opener at a Harlem book signing, nearly leaving him dead.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, but that was far from the first attempt on his life.
On September 20, 1958, King nearly died during another assassination attempt. The attack took place at a Harlem book signing. His attacker – a Black woman named Izola Ware Curry – stabbed King in the chest with a seven-inch letter opener.
King was rushed to the hospital. After several hours of surgery, he survived – but barely. His surgeon declared that King would have certainly died if he’d so much as sneezed with the letter opener protruding from his chest.
Who was the woman who almost assassinated Martin Luther King – and how did she escape jail time?
Who Was Izola Ware Curry?
Born the daughter of sharecroppers in rural Georgia in 1916, Izola Ware Curry dropped out of school after the seventh grade.
According to the makers of the 2019 documentary When Harlem Saved A King, Curry’s sister described Izola as a “somewhat disagreeable child who had never gotten along with other family members well. She frequently started arguments and was inclined to be jealous.”
In her early 20s, Curry moved to New York and began working as a housekeeper.
Curry struggled with mental illness, and over the next two decades, she was dogged by paranoid delusions. She seemed unable to hold a job for long, moving around between New York, Cleveland, St. Louis, Kentucky, Georgia, Florida, and elsewhere.
The year she tried to kill MLK, Curry was renting a room in Harlem.
“To her neighbors she was a very antisocial woman,” journalist Hugh Pearson wrote in his 2002 book When Harlem Nearly Killed King, according to the New York Times. “Curry spoke with a distinct Southern accent, but her words were often unintelligible.”
Curry’s delusions began to focus on the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the young civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. In letters to the FBI, Curry claimed the NAACP was a front for Communism. She also believed the organization was tracking her and conspiring to keep her from getting a job.
By 1958, Curry believed that King was “torturing” her. When she learned that King would attend a book signing in Harlem, Curry planned to attend. And she brought two weapons.
The Stabbing Of Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. was 29 years old and already a well-known activist when he walked into Blumstein’s Department Store in Harlem to sign his book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, which recounted the Montgomery bus boycott.
Izola Ware Curry attended the book signing with a very different purpose.
Curry brought with her two weapons: a seven-inch letter opener, which she concealed in her handbag; and a .25-caliber automatic pistol, which she tucked in her bra. She was wearing a neat suit, jewelry, and sequined cat-eye glasses. Curry pushed past the crowd.
“Are you Martin Luther King?” she demanded when she reached the table at the front.
“Yes,” King answered while signing a book.
Curry pulled the letter opener from her handbag. Before anyone could intervene, she stabbed King in the upper left chest.
“The next minute,” Dr. King later said. “I felt something beating on my chest.”
With the letter opener still protruding from his chest, King was rushed to the nearby Harlem Hospital. Meanwhile, at the department store, police seized Izola Curry and arrested her.
“I’ve been after him for six years,” she told them. “I’m glad I done it.”
Saving Martin Luther King’s Life
As police carted Izola Ware Curry off to the local precinct, surgeons struggled to save Martin Luther King’s life.
It took a surgical team more than 2 hours to remove the weapon and stabilize King.
“Had Dr. King sneezed or coughed, the weapon would have penetrated the aorta,” the surgeon later said, according to the The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute. “He was just a sneeze away from death.”
While King recovered at the hospital, Izola Ware Curry went to court for her arraignment.
“I understand this is the woman who is accused of stabbing the Reverend Dr. King with a knife,” said the judge during the arraignment hearing.
“No,” Curry insisted. “It was a letter opener.”
Curry also insisted that King, too, be charged with a crime, The Paris News reported at the time.
“I’m charging him as well as he’s charging me,” she told authorities. “I’m charging him with being mixed up with the communists.”
The Aftermath Of Izola Ware Curry’s Attempt On King’s Life
After the police interrogated Izola Ware Curry, she was committed to Bellevue Hospital for observation. The psychiatric report noted that Curry was sometimes “threatening and assaultive.”
Two psychiatrists diagnosed Curry as having paranoid schizophrenia. Later, a Manhattan judge ruled that Curry was unfit to stand trial. Instead of going to jail for attempted murder, Curry was committed to the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.
Ten days after the attack, King had returned to Montgomery, Alabama to recover. In a public statement, he forgave Curry for attempting to kill him.
“I am deeply sorry that a deranged woman should have injured herself in seeking to injure me,” King said. “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.”
The brush with death shaped King’s life. On April 3, 1968, King spoke of the attack in his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. In it, he quoted a letter from a high schooler, who wrote to him, “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.”
Had he sneezed, King said, he would not have participated in the 1960s Freedom Rides, seen the passing of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964, given his “I Have A Dream” speech, or marched from Selma to Montgomery and seen the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
At the conclusion of the speech, Martin Luther King said, “I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.”
The next day, on April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray shot and killed King. The civil rights leader was 39 years old.
Izola Ware Curry spent the rest of her life institutionalized. After 14 years at the Matteawan State Hospital, she was moved to the Manhattan Psychiatric Center and later lived in several residential-care homes. Curry died in a nursing home in 2015.