The time was around 2:00 on a Saturday in September of 1958. Al Howard, a police officer in Harlem, and Philip Romano, a new recruit, were sharing a patrol car. In his position as an officer, Howard, age 31, had already logged three years of service. That was the first time he’d ever met the rookie. While the two were on the road, a radio call informed them that Blumstein’s department store in Harlem was in complete disarray.
On the second floor, Martin Luther King, Jr. was sitting in a chair with a letter opener protruding from his chest when Howard and Romano arrived. In 1955, while King (then 29) was signing copies of Stride Toward Freedom, his account of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a well-dressed woman of 42 approached him and asked: “Dr. King, what do you think about the current state of race relations in America?”
Someone said, “Are you Dr. King?”
“Yes,” King said, without taking his eyes off the page he was signing.
Later identified as Izola Ware Curry, the well-dressed woman said, “I’ve been looking for you for five years,” and stabbed King in the chest with a 7-inch, ivory-handled steel letter opener.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Curry had a loaded 25-caliber automatic pistol in her bra and was prevented from using it. She didn’t try to escape but instead said, “I’ve been after him for six years.
I’m happy that it’s over with.
When Howard and the other officer arrived, they saw King sitting calmly in a chair with the handle of the letter opener sticking out of his chest, just below his collar. Howard told the civil rights leader, “Don’t sneeze, don’t even speak,” as he watched the knife approach the man’s chest.
There was a large crowd gathered, and Howard and his coworker needed assistance getting King to the hospital as quickly as possible. There were no walkie-talkies back then. The patrol car was our only source of radio communication. That’s where we lost contact with each other,” Howard said in an interview years later. Believe me, it was a dire situation when we were completely alone.
“I asked to be brought to a phone,” Years later, Howard recalled an incident to fellow officer John Miller. When I needed medical attention, I dialed the number for Harlem Hospital. Send an ambulance, I ordered. This guy I’ve got has a knife protruding from his chest. The question, “What do we do?” The doctor advised against surgical removal: “Don’t take it out.” Let us know where you are, and we’ll dispatch an ambulance right away.
Howard requested that the hospital dispatch the ambulance to the rear of the store because the front was too congested. It was at this point that Howard, a Black police officer, turned to the mixed crowd and asked for their cooperation in clearing a path so that King could be carried out the main entrance onto 125th Street. The Associated Press reports that Howard “stayed out front, as if waiting,” while Romano and others moved King from his chair to an ambulance on 124th Street.
There were approximately one thousand onlookers as King was transported to Harlem Hospital. It took hours for doctors at the hospital to successfully remove the knife from his body.
According to Mashable, “surgeons in a painstaking operation opened King’s chest, exposing his aorta, and removed the letter opener with a surgical clamp.” As the doctors reaffirmed, if King had sneezed, he would have lost his life. As a result of being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, would-be assassin Curry spent the rest of her life confined to mental hospitals. The Georgia native was determined to be mentally unfit to stand trial because of his IQ of around 70 at the time of the incident.
The mentally unstable woman who stabbed Martin Luther King, Jr. had long held the conspiracy theory that the NAACP was a Communist front and that its members were harassing and preventing her from obtaining steady employment. According to The Times, King became the focal point of these fantasies as time passed.
Meanwhile, King expressed his gratitude to the authorities in a letter. When referring to the NYPD, he wrote, “I have long been aware of the meaning of the phrase ‘New York’s finest.’” Since my misfortune, I have agreed with that label wholeheartedly. Certainly, there isn’t a more exquisite alternative.
Two months later, Howard received a promotion—not because of King, but for arresting a man with a gun. Over the years, he worked on several major cases and even ran into King at a Harlem sandwich shop.
Years later, in his April 3, 1968 “I’ve Seen the Mountaintop” speech, King discussed the stabbing.
I’m glad I didn’t sneeze tonight, and I’d like to share that sentiment with everyone here. In fact, I wouldn’t be here today if I had sneezed in 1960, when students across the South staged sit-ins at lunch counters.
You wouldn’t have found me here in 1961 when we decided to take a ride for freedom and put an end to segregation in interstate travel if I hadn’t sneezed.
If I had sneezed in 1962, when African-Americans in Albany, Georgia, decided to stand up straight, I wouldn’t have been here. If a man wants to ride you, he has to have your back bent over, so whenever you see men or women straightening their spines, you can be sure they are headed somewhere.
Sneezing would have prevented my telling America in August of that year about a dream I’d had in January.
An isolated gunman, later identified as James Earl Ray, killed the legendary leader the following day in Memphis, Tennessee, after he had given a speech.
Incredulous at what had happened, Howard was. After retiring, he opened a bar at Showman’s Jazz Club, where he remained as owner until his death in 2020 of the Covid-19. He was 93. In his obituary, it was written that he was instrumental in keeping Martin Luther King Jr. alive.