“Is this Martin Luther King?”
Izola Ware Curry just asked one simple question to Martin Luther King Jr. at a Sept. 20, 1958 book signing in Harlem.
42-year-old Curry had a distinctive Southern accent and was neatly dressed in a suit with matching jewelry and sequined cat-eye glasses.
King was signing copies of his first book “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story,” at Blumstein’s Department Store. King barely looked up when he replied, “Yes.”
With that confirmation, Curry plunged a seven-inch steel letter opener into King’s chest. She was stopped before she could get her loaded .25-caliber automatic pistol out of her bra.
She didn’t try to run.
A security guard and a newspaper reporter managed to catch the culprit before she could flee, and the crowd quickly devolved into panic. King himself did not. “That’s all right,” he said. “Everything is going to be all right.”
Martin Luther King Jr. could be seen calmly sitting in the shoe section at Blumstein’s Department Store with a letter opener protruding from his chest and a blood stain blooming across his white shirt.
But the problem at hand was whether to remove the blade before Martin Luther King Jr. was taken to the hospital. One woman gave up after slicing her fingers on its edges, and everyone decided to leave the job to the doctors.
That decision may have saved King’s life, though nobody knew it at the time. “It was a miracle that no one removed the blade,” chief surgeon Dr. Aubré de Lambert Maynard later said.
As History.com reports, an ambulance finally arrived and transported King to Harlem Hospital, where he spent more than two hours in the operating room.
The surgeons quickly realized the letter opener was so close to King’s aorta that simply pulling it out of the existing hole wasn’t an option. Instead, they withdrew two of King’s ribs and slid the weapon out that way.
After the procedure, Naclerio explained just how dire the situation had actually been.
“Had Dr. King sneezed or coughed, the weapon would have penetrated the aorta. He was just a sneeze away from death,” he said, according to Jet magazine.
In the meanwhile, authorities deemed Izola Ware Curry to be incompetent to stand trial, and she was committed to a psychiatric institution after being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia on October 20.
Days later, a recovered King alighted at the airport in Montgomery, Alabama, and expressed his sympathy for Curry.
“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,” King told the crowd.
“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.”
Meanwhile, Naclerio’s “a sneeze away from death” comment reverberated through the minds of his supporters. “I’m simply writing to you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze,” one high school student told King in a letter.
On April 3, 1968, the day before his assassination, King delivered what would be his last speech ever at a temple in Memphis, Tennessee. In it, he said, “I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.”