Martin Luther King, Jr. sat at a table in a Harlem department store, autographing copies of his book Stride Toward Freedom. He was approached by a woman who asked “Is this Martin Luther King?” “Yes, it is,” King replied. Immediately, the woman pulled a letter opener from her coat pocket and drove it into King’s chest, just fractions of an inch from an aorta. As the woman was taken into custody, King was rushed to Harlem Hospital where, three hours later, surgeons removed the letter opener.
This is how most newspaper and biographical accounts describe the assassination attempt on Martin Luther King on September 18, 1958. In the days that followed, news on King’s recovery, details on the surgery and the fate of the would-be assassin was released. But this brief event is often overlooked, if mentioned at all, in the context of other events and achievements of King’s life. Thus, many are unaware of the near tragedy.
When Harlem Nearly Killed King by Hugh Pearson takes a deep look at the incident. Starting with the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and King’s own memoir about the boycott, Pearson traces the events and circumstances surrounding King’s trip to Harlem, his stabbing at the hands of Izola Curry, the surgery to remove the weapon, and the various individuals involved. As it turns out, there was more going on beneath that near fatal moment than meets the eye: New York gubernatorial candidates Averell Harriman and Nelson Rockefeller showed support of King in effort to win black voters; many black leaders of New York, who disagreed with or were jealous of King, declined to attend a rally in his honor; a prominent Harlem bookstore owner launched a protest at the rally when King declined to visit his store; Curry’s hatred of black ministers fueled her decision to try to kill King; professional ego caused the delay in King’s surgery and was a factor in who took credit for the operation.
I read When Harlem this past summer for a class assignment. I won’t burden you with the particulars of the assignment, but part of my paper examined the impact of race on what went on that day and the days before and after. It was the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement, and as Americans were confronted with the issues of inequality and discrimination more than in previous times, so were their attitudes. Its influence was at the base of every motive and action by every individual directly involved with that day in September, for better and for worse. The stakes were high, and race was something used for gain or an obstacle to proving the worth of African-Americans.
When Harlem Nearly Killed King is a fascinating read for history buffs like me and readers interested in the Civil Rights Movement. Filled with revealing facts and tidbits of information, it is a revealing look at the state of America at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement.