The Time Martin Luther King Jr. Was A Sneeze Away From Death

Martin Luther King Jr. was a minister who was instrumental in the civil rights movement. He became the target of countless death threats as a result of his activism and support for equal rights. In 1968, he was assassinated on the balcony of his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee. Nearly 10 years prior to that, however, King survived an attempt on his life by a hair (via Biography).

On September 20, 1958, King was in Blumstein’s Department Store in Harlem, New York, for a book signing. He had just released his first book titled “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story,” and plenty of people were lined up to have their copies signed by the then-29-year-old activist. Suddenly, a woman from the crowd shouted, “Is that Martin Luther King?” to which King replied, “Yes, it is.” What transpired next shocked the people at the store. The woman — holding a letter opener — lunged toward King. He was able to dodge the attack, but his hand was cut in the struggle. The woman then proceeded to plunge the letter opener into King’s chest, as reported by The Washington Post.

Martin Luther King Jr. barely survived the attack

The letter opener had a seven-inch blade, and the woman stabbed so forcefully that the handle broke. The crowd subdued her, and the people around Martin Luther King Jr. thought about the best way to go about the situation. The weapon was stuck on his chest, one of the attendees attempted to remove it. However, the sharp edge cut her, and it was decided that it was best not to remove it (via History). King was immediately taken to a hospital where he underwent surgery.

King’s condition was complicated, and the surgeons couldn’t have simply removed the letter opener as it was too close to his aorta — the artery that supplies blood from the heart to the body. Instead of simply pulling the weapon out, the doctors did the more complicated but safer procedure and removed two of his ribs in order to safely remove the letter opener. One of the doctors, Emil Naclerio, said, “Had Dr. King sneezed or coughed, the weapon would have penetrated the aorta. He was just a sneeze away from death” (via Jet Magazine).

The aftermath of the attempted assassination

The woman who stabbed Martin Luther King Jr. was identified as Izola Ware Curry — a 42-year-old who was described as mentally disturbed, per the King Institute. She was immediately arrested at the crime scene, and authorities discovered that she also had a loaded gun. Curry was charged with possession of firearms and felonious assault, but she was deemed unfit to stand trial and was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. She was committed to the Mattawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Upon learning the background of his attacker, King stated that he felt no resentment toward Curry. “The woman shouldn’t be punished, she didn’t know what she was doing,” he said (via Jet Magazine).

The assassination attempt was the inspiration for his last speech titled “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” which he delivered the day before he was killed. In his address, he said he was happy that he didn’t sneeze when he was stabbed, as he wouldn’t have been present when the Civil Rights Act was passed. “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,” he proclaimed, referring to his moving 1963 speech “I Have a Dream” (via The New York Times).

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