Izola Ware Curry (born June 14, 1916) is an African-American woman who attempted to assassinate civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. She stabbed King with a letter opener at a Harlem book signing on September 20, 1958, during the Harlem civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s. King was eventually assassinated April 4, 1968, in an unrelated incident. Curry was born in Adrian, Georgia and at the age of 20 moved to New York where she found work as a housekeeper. Shortly after moving she developed delusions about the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Curry was one of eight children born to sharecroppers in Adrian, Georgia, a city about 100 miles northwest of Savannah, and, as of 2014, has no surviving family members. She left school in the seventh grade and later married a man named James Curry when she was 21. The couple separated about six months after their 1937 nuptials, and Izola moved to New York City, the beginning of an itinerant existence that would see her bounce from Georgia, Florida, St. Louis, and New York while in search of steady work as a housekeeper, short-order cook, or factory worker. According to court records, as well as law enforcement and psychiatric reports, Curry began suffering from delusions, paranoia, and illogical thinking for several years before she sought to kill King. This erratic state appears to have contributed to her difficulties in securing and maintaining employment.
King went on a tour to promote Strive Toward Freedom after it was published. During a book signing at a department store in Harlem, a well-dressed woman approached and asked him if he was Martin Luther King, Jr. When King replied in the affirmative, she said, "I've been looking for you for five years," then stabbed him in the chest with a steel letter opener.
New York City Police Department officers Al Howard and Phil Romano were in a radio car near the end of their tour at 3:30 pm when they received a report of a disturbance in Blumstein’s Department store. They arrived to see King sitting in a chair with an ivory handled letter opener protruding from his chest. Howard was heard to tell King, "Don’t sneeze, don’t even speak."
Howard and Romano took King still in the chair down to an ambulance that took King to Harlem Hospital, which was already notifying chief of thoracic and vascular surgery John W. V. Cordice, Jr. who was in his office in Brooklyn, and trauma surgeon Emil Naclerio, who had been attending a wedding and arrived still in a tuxedo. They made incisions and inserted a rib spreader, making King’s aorta visible. Chief of Surgery Aubre de Lambert Maynard then entered and attempted to pull out the letter opener, but cut his glove on the blade; a surgical clamp was finally used to pull out the blade.
"Days later," King wrote in his posthumously published autobiography, "when I was well enough to talk with Dr. Aubrey Maynard, the chief of the surgeons who performed the delicate, dangerous operation, I learned the reason for the long delay that preceded surgery. He told me that the razor tip of the instrument had been touching my aorta and that my whole chest had to be opened to extract it. 'If you had sneezed during all those hours of waiting,' Dr. Maynard said, 'your aorta would have been punctured and you would have drowned in your own blood.'"
While still in the hospital, King said in a September 30 press release in which he reaffirmed his belief in "the redemptive power of nonviolence" and issued a hopeful statement about his attacker, "I felt no ill will toward Mrs. Izola Currey [sic] and know that thoughtful people will do all in their power to see that she gets the help she apparently needs if she is to become a free and constructive member of society." On October 17, after hearing King's testimony, a grand jury indicted Curry for attempted murder.
As it happened, one of the cops was black, the other white and the same was the case with the two surgeons. Each pair worked as true partners, proving that the color of their skin meant nothing and translating the content of their character into life-saving action.
Curry was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic by two psychiatrists who reported that she had an IQ of 70, “low average intelligence,” and was in a severe “state of insanity.” A Manhattan judge would later concur with the psychiatrists’ conclusion that Curry—who had been indicted for attempted murder—should be committed to the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Curry spent nearly 14 years at Matteawan before being transferred in March 1972 to the Manhattan Psychiatric Center on Ward’s Island in upper Manhattan. She spent about a year there before officials placed her in the Rosedale, Queens home of a woman certified through the state’s “Family Care” program to provide residential care for those diagnosed with mental illnesses. After a fall resulting in a leg injury Curry was placed in the Jamaica, Queens, New York nursing home where she resides as of 2014.
- Curry, Izola Ware (1916- ), via the Martin Luther King Jr Research and Education Institute.
- Hugh Pearson. When Harlem Nearly Killed King: The 1958 Stabbing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. pg.49. "1958.. forty-two-year-old Negro woman named Izola Curry.."
- "The Woman Who Tried To Murder Dr. King". The Smoking Gun. 2014. Retrieved 2014-08-04.
- Michael Daly (January 20, 2014). "The Black and White Men Who Saved Martin Luther King’s Life". The Daily Beast. Archived from the original on 2014-01-22. Retrieved January 22, 2014.
Stabbed in the chest in 1958, one mistake or sneeze would have fatally severed his aorta if not for the deft work for two cops and two surgeons.
- "King's Biography". Warner Books. 2001. Retrieved 2007-07-04.
- "press release". The Smoking Gun. 1958-09-30. Retrieved 2007-07-04.
- "The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr., digitized volume 4". University of California Press. 2000. Retrieved 2007-07-04.
- "When Harlem Nearly Killed King: The 1958 Stabbing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." Amazon page for the book on the incident