The Day Martin Luther King Jr. Was Stabbed in Harlem

Civil rights leader was signing books at Harlem store

By Gabe Pressman
|  Monday, Jan 16, 2012  |  Updated 7:29 AM EDT
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The Day Martin Luther King Jr. Was Stabbed in Harlem

Bernard J. Kleina

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On Sept. 20, 1958,  as Martin Luther King Jr was signing his newly published book at a Harlem bookstore, a 42-year-old woman, apparently deranged, suddenly started screaming and plunged a knife into the civil right leader's chest.

He was taken to Harlem Hospital, where a surgeon operated on him successfully. King's life was saved. And, a few hours later, I was allowed to interview the embattled minister.

King was just emerging as the leader of the civil rights movement in America. He had led the successful boycott of segregated bus lines in Montgomery, Ala. He organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. His ideology of non-violent resistance had led to his arrest numerous times. The Montgomery victory resonated throughout the world.

After managing to get into King's hospital room, I was amazed at how calm he was. He said that he had no bitterness against Izola Curr, the woman who stabbed him in the sternum. "I think she needs help," King told me. "I'm not angry at her."

As I look back at this episode, I am amazed at how easily I got into King's room. I can't remember whether I had a camera or whether I was using only a radio tape recorder. I remember that this happened during a heated political campaign between Nelson Rockefeller, the liberal Republican candidate, and the man he was trying to unseat, Gov. Averell Harriman. Both of them, I was told, telephoned the hospital to find out how King was doing.

King was not yet at the height of his fame, but the candidates and their handlers knew he was an up-and-coming leader and they wanted to register their concern for him.

Years later, I remember how King became sympathetic to the anti-Vietnam War movement and he identified too with the anti-poverty campaign of President Lyndon Johnson. At one point, I recall, he wasn't doing too well politically with some black civil rights leaders. They felt he was too distracted and should concentrate on their concerns. For a while, he was virtually ignored by political leaders and journalists too.

It was sometime in the mid-1960s that I heard that the minister was visiting some anti-poverty groups in New York. I set out for East Harlem on that day, where I found him at a storefront manned by a couple of people engaged in an anti-poverty program. There were no other reporters there.

A police car happened to pass by, noticed my camera crew and stopped. A sergeant stepped out and asked me what was going on.

"Martin Luther King is in there talking to some anti-poverty workers," I said. "Since he was stabbed on another visit to Harlem, maybe it would be a good idea if he got some protection."

I had no business suggesting how police should be deployed but I was young and brash in those days. The sergeant left, but a few minutes later, another squad car arrived and hung out near the storefront for the next half hour until King left.

I don't remember exactly what King said to me on that day. He clearly was advocating the need to fight poverty in our country. But over the years and especially after his assassination, I came to appreciate the power of his words -- words and thoughts that stand well the test of time. Consider some:

"Faith is taking the first step, even when you don't see the whole staircase....."

"Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it..."

"In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends..."

"Returning violence for violence multiplies violence..."

"We must live together as brothers or perish together as fools..."

On the night before his death, King recalled the story of Moses. After leading the children of Israel for 40 years through the desert, Moses had finally reached the promised land. God then told him he couldn't go into this land but would only be allowed to see it from a mountaintop.

In Memphis, on the night before he was killed, King declared prophetically: "I've looked over and I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land. So I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man."

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