1958: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was stabbed

On this day in history, September 20, 1958, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was seriously injured after a woman stabbed him with a letter opener during a book signing in Harlem.

King was in the store signing copies of his newly released book, Stride Toward Freedom, his account of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, when a 42-year-old, African-American woman named Izola Curry lunged at him with the letter opener, lodging its tip deep in King’s chest just inches away from his aorta.

Curry approached the reverend and asked if it was really him. When he replied yes, she said, “I’ve been looking for you for five years,” and plunged a letter opener into his chest.

When police arrived on the scene, they found the civil rights leader sitting in a chair with the letter opener’s ivory handle still protruding just below his collar.

Fearful of the blade’s proximity to King’s heart, Officer Al Howard warned him, “Don’t sneeze, don’t even speak.”

While his assailant was taken into custody, King was carefully rushed to Harlem Hospital, where chief of thoracic and vascular surgery John W.V. Cordice, Jr. and trauma surgeon Emil Naclero were quickly summoned and where King underwent nearly 2 ½ hours of surgery. Coming from a wedding, Naclero arrived still wearing a tuxedo, and prepared for surgery. The operating doctors confirmed that the letter opener was placed so precariously that if he had sneezed, the blade would have fatally punctured his aorta.

When asked about whether he was angry about the attack, King reportedly said, “I think she needs help. I’m not angry at her.”

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