On 20 September 1958, Izola Ware Curry, a forty-two year old mentally disturbed woman, stabbed Martin Luther King, Jr. while he signed copies of his book Stride Toward Freedom at Blumstein’s Department Store in Harlem, New York. Curry approached King with a seven-inch steel letter opener and drove the blade into the upper left side of his chest. King was rushed to Harlem Hospital where he underwent two-and-a-quarter hours of surgery to repair the wound. Doctors operating on the twenty-nine year old leader said, “Had Dr. King sneezed or coughed the weapon would have penetrated the aorta. . . . He was just a sneeze away from death” (Papers 4:499n).
Born in Adrian, Georgia, Curry moved to New York at the age of 20 to begin work as a cook and housekeeper. Shortly after her relocation, Curry developed paranoid delusions about the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders. After stabbing King, Curry was arrested at the scene and found carrying a loaded gun. When questioned by police at New York’s 28th precinct, she accused civil rights leaders of “boycotting” and “torturing” her as well as causing her to lose jobs and forcing her to change her religion (Curry, Statement to Howard Jones, 21 September 1958). Curry also suggested that dangerous connections were being forged between the civil rights movement and the Communist Party. After authorities informed her that she was being charged with felonious assault and possession of firearms, she reportedly replied, “I’m charging him [King] as well as he’s charging me…I’m charging him with being mixed up with the Communists” (“Dr. King’s Knifer,” 22 September 1962).
When King received word of his attacker’s mental state, he expressed his sympathy and issued a statement upon returning home to Montgomery, Alabama: “I am deeply sorry that a deranged woman should have injured herself in seeking to injure me. 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. I know that we want her to receive the necessary treatment so that she may become a constructive citizen in an integrated society where a disorganized personality need not become a menace to any man” (Papers 4:513).
Following the stabbing, Curry was placed in Bellevue Hospital for observation and was found not competent to stand trial. On 20 October she was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and committed to Matteawan State Hospital for the criminally insane.
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to King, 21 September 1958, in Papers 4:498-499.
“Dr. King’s Knifer Sent to Bellevue,” New York Times, 22 September 1958.
King, Statement Upon Return to Montgomery, 24 October 1958, in Papers 4:513-514.
Pearson, When Harlem Nearly Killed King, 2002.