It was a Saturday afternoon on September 20, 1958. Harlem officer Al Howard was driving a patrol car with a rookie, Officer Philip Romano. Howard, 31, had been working as an officer for three years. That day was his first time meeting the rookie. While the two were driving, a call came over the radio saying that there was chaos at Blumstein’s department store in Harlem.
When Howard and Romano arrived on the second floor of the building, they found Martin Luther King, Jr., seated in a chair in a dark suit and tie with a letter opener jutting out of his chest. King, then 29, had been signing copies of Stride Toward Freedom, his account of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, when he was suddenly approached by a 42-year-old well-dressed woman, who asked him:
“Are you Martin Luther King?”
“Yes,” King replied, without looking up from where he was signing his book.
The stylishly dressed woman, who would later be identified as Izola Ware Curry, said: “I’ve been looking for you for five years,” and plunged a 7-inch, ivory-handled steel letter opener into King’s chest.
Curry had in her bra a loaded 25-calibre automatic pistol, which she wanted to use but was stopped before she could get to it, reported the Atlanta Journal Constitution. She did not attempt to run but rather indicated: “I’ve been after him for six years.
“I’m glad I done it (sic).”
Howard and his fellow officer arrived on the scene, finding King seated on a chair and calmly being attended to by supporters while the handle of the letter opener protruded from his chest – just below his collar. Seeing the blade’s closeness to the heart of the civil rights leader, Howard warned him: “Don’t sneeze, don’t even speak.”
Howard and his colleague needed help to rush King to the hospital in the midst of the crowd that had gathered. “In those days we didn’t have walkie-talkies. The only radio we had was the one in the patrol car. Once we left that, our communication was cut off,” Howard said years later in an interview. “We were entirely on our own, and believe me, it was some predicament.”
“I said, ‘Take me to a telephone,’” Howard recalled to another officer John Miller years later. “I called Harlem Hospital. I said, ‘Send an ambulance. I have this man who’s got a knife sticking out of his chest. What do we do?’ The doctor came on the phone and said, ‘Don’t take it out. We’ll send an ambulance right away.’”
There was a big crowd at the front of the store so Howard asked the hospital to send the ambulance to the back of the store. Howard, a Black police officer, then turned to a mixed crowd and asked it to give way for King to be taken out through the front door on 125th Street. According to AJC, Howard “stayed out front, as if waiting, while Romano and others carried King, still seated in his chair, to an ambulance out back, on 124th Street.”
King was taken to Harlem Hospital as about a thousand people watched. At the hospital, it took surgeons hours to remove the blade without killing him.
“In a painstaking operation, surgeons opened King’s chest, exposing his aorta, and removed the letter opener with a surgical clamp,” said an article on Mashable. The doctors later reiterated that if King had sneezed, he would have died. Curry, the would-be assassin, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and she spent the rest of her life in mental institutions. The Georgia native, at the time of the incident, had an IQ of about 70 and was found not fit to stand trial.
Before stabbing King, the mentally disturbed woman had, for many years, had delusions that the NAACP was a Communist front and that members were persecuting her and preventing her from finding a stable job. As years passed, King became the center of those delusions, according to The Times.
King meanwhile wrote a letter to show his appreciation to the police. “I have long been aware of the meaning of the phrase ‘New York’s finest’ when applied to members of the N.Y. Police Department,” he wrote. “From the moment of my unfortunate accident, I have concurred, wholeheartedly, in that appellation. There are none finer.”
Howard himself was promoted two months after the incident, not necessarily because of King but for arresting a man with a gun. He went on to work on huge cases and even saw King years later at a sandwich shop in Harlem.
King recalled the stabbing incident years later in his “I’ve Seen the Mountaintop” speech of April 3, 1968.
“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.
“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 interstate 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, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had…”
The day after delivering his speech, the iconic leader was shot dead by a lone gunman, who was later identified as James Earl Ray in Memphis.
Howard was shocked at the incident. He retired, became owner of a bar in Showman’s Jazz Club and passed away in 2020 of Covid-19. He was 93. Among his many achievements on his obituary was that: “He helped save Martin Luther King Jr.’s life.”