On September 20, 1958, Dr King was doing a book signing at the Blumstein’s Department Store which was located on 230 West 125th Street (between Seventh and Eighth Avenues). At 3:30pm Dr. King was signing his first published book, a memoir on the Montgomery bus boycott called Stride for Freedom: A Montgomery Story when a woman who was not part of the twenty people that were on line waiting to meet Dr. King approached the table. As the woman slipped in to a narrow opening by the desk, she asked him "Are You Dr. King?" to which he responded with a nod. For his confirmation he received a stabbing to the upper left part of his chest in the form of a silver letter opener. The woman was also found to have a .25-calibre Italian automatic pistol in her dress.
Dr. King was taken to Harlem Hospital and was operated on by famed surgeon Dr. Aubre de Lambert Maynard for two and half-hours. Dr. Maynard described what he saw upon his arrival at Harlem Hospital that evening in the article Reminiscing With Dr. Aubrey Maynard: On Saving Dr. King:
"I went immediately to the operating floor and found Governor Harriman sitting on a stretcher with his Secret Service men. Governor Harriman said, 'Where have you been?' I went into the operating area and they had Dr. King along the side of the operating room, with an intravenous drug in his arm and he was all covered. He was absolutely silent, his eyes were closed. He said nothing at the time. I looked at him. All I could see was the knife, which looked like a large dagger, sticking out of his chest. I went to him, softly spoke into his ear: 'Don't worry, Dr. King, I'm Dr. Maynard. I'll do the very best for you, so don't worry, you'll be all right.' "
"I immediately decided on the position and all the factors necessary for a successful approach to the job. That took a little time. We had to do all that without the knife being touched. When I was satisfied that everything was in order, it was a question of cleaning the skin areas and all over the chest and arm. With that done, we started the surgery and it was carried out, I would say successfully."
Upon the end of the procedure, Dr. Maynard made the following statement to the newspapers referring to the precarious situation Dr. King found him in:
(The seven inch blade) "had impinged on the aorta, a blood vessel near the heart" A puncture of the aorta would have been "instant death"
A sneeze, a cough and even taking out of the blade before reaching the hospital would have resulted fatal to Dr. King. The woman who stabbed Dr. King was deemed to be mentally ill by the Magistrate who oversaw her arraignment and was taken to Bellevue Hospital. Upon hearing about the woman’s mental state, Dr. King issued the following statement through his wife Coretta Scott King:
"She was obviously disturbed and she no doubt is not completely responsible for her actions"
Dr. King made a reference to this incident in his I've Been to the Mountaintop speech given on April 3, 1968. Here are his words as he described what happened:
You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, "Are you Martin Luther King?" And I was looking down writing, and I said, "Yes." And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest. Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that's punctured, your drowned in your own blood -- that's the end of you.
It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died. Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after the operation, after my chest had been opened, and the blade had been taken out, to move around in the wheel chair in the hospital. 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've forgotten what those telegrams said. I'd received a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I've forgotten what that letter said. But there was another letter that 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."
And 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.
And I want to say tonight -- I want to say tonight that I too am happy that I didn't sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream, and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in inter-state travel.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can't ride your back unless it is bent.
If I had sneezed -- If I had sneezed I wouldn't have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great Movement there.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering.
I'm so happy that I didn't sneeze.
Dr. King made a full recovery to continue with his civil rights work until the fateful evening of April 4, 1968. Had the would be assassin in Harlem been able to sink the blade of her letter opener just an inch deeper, civil rights legislation may have taken longer to come to fruition. Who knows how long things would have remained as they were without the work of Dr. King among others that fought for the civil rights for all people.
Thank you Dr. King for all the work you did in your short life. You will always be a beacon that we all can follow regardless of our race, creed or religion. May you always rest in peace
For Further Reading:
- Click Here to access to the article Dr. King, Negro Leader, Stabbed By Woman in a Store in Harlem; DR. KING STABBED IN HARLEM STORE dated September 21, 1958 from the New York Times website.
- Click Here to access to the article Dr. King’s Knifer Sent to Bellevue dated September 22, 1958 from the New York Times Website
- Click Here to access the article Reminiscing With Dr. Aubrey Maynard: On Saving Dr. King dated January 14, 1996 from the New York Times Website
- Click Here to access the blogpost Remember: The Blumstein Awnings from the Harlem + Bespoke blog page to see what the front of Blumstein’s Department Store looked like
- Click Here to access the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute website
- Click Here to access the PBS Metrofocus article Martin Luther King, Jr. on Broadway – He’s Been There Before for more infomation on the new MLK play starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett as well as sources on MLK in NYC
- For a more in depth source on the stabbing of Dr. King in Harlem check out When Harlem Nearly Killed King: The 1958 Stabbing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Hugh Pearson on Google Books
- Click Here to access the Seattle Times special look on Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement