The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorialized the near-fatal stabbing in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, delivered in 1968 the day before he was assassinated.

Share story

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

Ms. Curry died in a nursing home, the last in the series of institutions that had been her home for more than 50 years. Her death, confirmed by the office of the chief medical examiner of New York City, was first reported by The Smoking Gun investigative website.

What surprised many observers at the time of the crime was that Curry was black, the daughter of sharecroppers from the rural South. Questions persisted about what could have moved her to attack 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 killed King, requiring hours of delicate surgery to remove Ms. Curry’s blade, a 7-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.

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, Tenn., 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,” 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 applause, 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, 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.

Apart from King’s speech, Ms. Curry vanished from history. Deemed unfit to stand trial, she was committed to a mental hospital; as the years elapsed, she was widely presumed dead. Even a 2002 book about the stabbing, “When Harlem Nearly Killed King,” by Hugh Pearson, does not chart her life’s later course.

Then, in a profile published last August, The Smoking Gun wrote of having found Ms. Curry, physically and mentally feeble, at the nursing home, Hillside Manor, in the Jamaica section of Queens.

“While Curry described her daily routine — up at 5:30 a.m., bed around 10 p.m., and not much going on in between,” the profile said, “she met questions about King and the stabbing with a furrowed brow and a blank stare.”

Izola Ware was born on June 14, 1916, near the Georgia town of Adrian. She seems to have had little education beyond grade school.

After a brief early marriage to James Curry dissolved, Ms. Curry moved to New York and found work as a domestic. There, she began to experience paranoid delusions that overtook her completely before she was 40.

Her mental state made it hard for her to hold a job, and she bounced around the country. By 1958 she was back in New York, living in a rented room in Harlem.

She had begun having delusions about the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which she believed was a Communist front. In her mind, the group was persecuting her, following her and making it impossible for her to find steady work. She wrote letters to that effect to the FBI. Over time, as King rose to prominence, her delusions centered increasingly on him.

On Sept. 20, 1958, King was autographing copies of his first book, “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story,” in Blumstein’s department store.

Ms. Curry, elegantly dressed, entered the store armed with a loaded pistol in her bra and the letter opener in her handbag. She pushed through the crowd.

“Are you Martin Luther King?” she asked.

“Yes,” he replied, not looking up from the book he was signing.

She reached into her handbag.

“The next minute,” King later wrote, “I felt something beating on my chest.” He was taken to Harlem Hospital, where surgeons opened his chest and ever so gently withdrew the blade.

Ms. Curry was apprehended in the store. “I’ve been after him for six years,” she cried. “I’m glad I done it.”

At her arraignment the next day, she was scarcely her own best advocate.

“I understand this is the woman who is accused of stabbing the Reverend Dr. King with a knife,” the judge said.

“No,” Ms. Curry shouted. “It was a letter opener.”