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Izola Ware Curry, Came Within A Sneeze Of Killing Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dead At 98

March 22, 2015

 

There is much to enjoy over a well-written and engaging obituary.    Such as this one.

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The letter opener Izola Ware Curry used to stab the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. protruded from his chest after the attack. Credit Vernoll Coleman/New York Daily News        

Izola Ware Curry, the mentally ill woman who in 1958 stabbed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a Harlem book signing — an episode that a decade later would become a rhetorical touchstone in the last oration of his life — died on March 7 in Queens. She was 98.

Ms. Curry died in a nursing home, the last stop in the series of institutions that had been her home for more than half a century. Her death, confirmed by the office of the chief medical examiner of New York City, was first reported by The Smoking Gun, the investigative website.

What surprised many observers at the time of the crime was that Ms. Curry herself was black, the daughter of sharecroppers from the rural South. Questions persisted about what could have moved her to attack Dr. King, then a 29-year-old Alabama preacher who had assumed the national stage amid the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56.

The stabbing nearly cost Dr. King his life, requiring hours of delicate surgery to remove Ms. Curry’s blade, a seven-inch ivory-handled steel letter opener, which had lodged near his heart. If he had so much as sneezed, his doctors later told him, he would not have survived.

Dr. King, who said afterward that he bore no animus toward Ms. Curry and did not want charges pressed, memorialized the attack in “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” That speech, delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated, endures as one of his most famous.

“The X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery,” Dr. King said in the speech. “And once that’s punctured, you’re drowned in your own blood — that’s the end of you.”

Of all the letters of consolation that poured in to the hospital, he continued, there was one that “I will never forget.”

“Dear Dr. King,” it read. “I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School. 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.”

To impassioned applause, Dr. King went on: “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 he had sneezed, he continued, he would not have seen the Freedom Rides of the early ’60s, nor given his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, nor seen the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, nor been involved in the Selma-to-Montgomery marches of 1965.

And so, Dr. King concluded, “I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.”

He was shot to death by James Earl Ray in Memphis the next day.

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