Izola Ware Curry

Izola Ware Curry, in a 1958 image taken from dailymail.co.uk

Izola Ware Curry isn’t a name that’s familiar to most people. Sure, there were media notices when she died, aged 98, in March 2015. But how many people know of the event for which she previously made headlines, in 1958?

She tried to murder Martin Luther King.

Her weapon of choice was a letter opener. The venue was a bookshop in Harlem. And she was a mentally ill black woman, not a white supremacist. Unfit to stand trial, she spent the rest of her life in a mental institution.

Of course Dr King went on to achieve many things and far greater fame. His “I Have a Dream” speech is famous around the world.

His second most famous speech is arguably the “mountaintop speech,” which he delivered the night before he was assassinated. There’s a famous clip that you can find on youtube, which runs to about three and a half minutes. I’ve included it below:

I can’t be the only person to have listened to the end of the speech, heard his premonition, and wondered if he knew the end of his life was nigh. I figure he probably did. He’d probably been warned about a coming assassination attempt. He was never likely to lead a long life.

As fascinating as that video is, there’s a better one on youtube that covers the full speech:

The reason why this one is better is that King goes into nuts and bolts detail about how parts of the civil rights movement worked. The marches, sit-ins and other activities are well known. But as he makes clear, economic activities were also vital. By boycotting certain consumer products, choosing which shops to buy goods at and so on, campaigners could put pressure on retailers and suppliers. That too made a difference.

King also recounts Ware Curry’s attack on him. The letter-opener had gone into his chest very close to his aorta. It was so close, in fact, that as he says during the speech: “It came out in The New York Times the next morning that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died.”

And then he comes to a detail that fascinates me. He received many letters from well-wishers while he was still in hospital. He says:

“They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the States and the world, kind letters came in. I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the President and the Vice-President. I have forgotten what those telegrams said. I’d received a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I have forgotten what that letter said.

“But there was another letter. It came from a little girl, a young girl, who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter and I’ll never forget it. It said simply, ‘Dear Dr King, I am a ninth grade student at the White Plains High School.’ She said: ‘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.’”

The audience laughs, but King clearly spoke the truth when he said he would never forget that letter. And that ninth grader? She would have been born in roughly 1944. Whoever she was, there’s a good chance that she’s still alive.

King continues by listing some of the things that he would’ve missed if he had sneezed. And from a historical perspective, it’s tempting to wonder what might have become of the civil rights movement itself. Without King, would it have derailed?

I tend to think it wouldn’t have. Low-level terrorism was a constant feature of the civil rights era but from reading John Lewis’ graphic novel series “March,” I have the strong impression that the civil rights campaign was a massive movement and involved a lot of people. Had Dr King sneezed, history would have been different. But I think the civil rights movement would have continued.

By the way, there’s a brief feature on Izola Ware Curry here:

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