Izola Curry June 14, 1916 – March 7, 2015, was an African-American woman who attempted to assassinate civil rights leader Dr. 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 survived Curry’s attempt, and forgave her, but was killed less than ten years later in an unrelated incident.
Curry was one of eight children born to sharecroppers in 1916 near Adrian, Georgia, a city about 100 miles northwest of Savannah. 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 Harlem, New York, where she found work as a housekeeper.
After moving to New York, Curry began to suffer delusions and paranoia, particularly about the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. This contributed to employment difficulties, and she bounced around various locations and jobs before arriving in New York in late 1958.
King went on a tour to promote his book, Stride Toward Freedom, soon after it was published. During a book signing at Blumstein’s department store in Harlem, on September 20, 1958, Curry approached and asked him if he was Martin Luther King, Jr. When King replied in the affirmative, Curry stabbed him in the chest with a steel letter opener.
Careful surgery was required to remove the blade. King wrote in his posthumously published autobiography that he was told 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 he was still in the hospital, on September 30, King issued a 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 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.” He issued a similar statement on his return home, again stating that he hoped she would get help, and that society would improve so that “a disorganized personality need not become a menace to any man.” On October 17, after hearing King’s testimony, a grand jury indicted Curry for attempted murder source.
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Two psychiatrists reported that Curry had low intelligence and was in a severe “state of insanity.” On October 20, she was committed to the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.
After 14 years at Matteawan, Curry was transferred to the Manhattan Psychiatric Center on Ward’s Island in Upper Manhattan, and then to a residential care program in Rosedale, Queens. After a fall resulting in a leg injury, Curry was placed in the Jamaica, Queens, New York nursing home, where she resided until her death. Curry died of natural causes.