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Chapter 12: Brush with Death

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Book cover - The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson

This was a rather difficult year for me. I have had to confront the brutality of police officers, an unwarranted arrest, and a near fatal stab wound by a mentally deranged woman. These things were poured upon me like staggering torrents on a cold, wintry day.

  • September 3, 1958 King is arrested in Montgomery  
  • September 4 After his conviction for failing to obey an officer, King's fine is paid by Montgomery police commissioner
  • September 20 Is stabbed in Harlem
  • October 3 After release from Harlem Hospital, begins convalescing at the home of the Reverend Sandy F. Ray
  • October 24 Returns to Montgomery to continue recuperation

    On a Saturday afternoon in 1958, I sat in a Harlem department store, surrounded by hundreds of people. I was autographing copies of Stride Toward Freedom, my book about the Montgomery bus boycott. And while sitting there, a demented black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, "Are you Martin Luther King?" I was looking down writing, and I said "Yes." And the next minute, I felt something sharp plunge forcefully into my chest. Before I knew it, I had been stabbed with a letter opener by a woman who would later be judged insane, Mrs. Izola Ware Curry. 

    Rushed by ambulance to Harlem Hospital, I lay in a bed for hours while preparations were made to remove the keen-edged knife from my body. Days later, when I was well enough to talk with Dr. Aubrey Maynard, the chief of the surgeons who performed the delicate, dangerous operation, I learned the reason for the long delay that preceded surgery. He told me 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." 

    It came out in the New York Times the next morning that, if I had sneezed, I would have died. 

    About four days later, after the operation, after my chest had been opened, and the blade had been taken out, they allowed me to move around in the wheelchair in the hospital and read some of the kind letters that came from all over the States, and the world. I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. There was a letter from a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. It said simply, "Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School." She said, "While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I am 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."

    Uncertain but promising future

    If I demonstrated unusual calm during the recent attempt on my life, it was certainly not due to any extraordinary powers that I possess. Rather, it was due to the power of God working through me. Throughout this struggle for racial justice I have constantly asked God to remove all bitterness from my heart and to give me the strength and courage to face any disaster that came my way. This constant prayer life and feeling of dependence on God have given me the feeling that I have divine companionship in the struggle. I know no other way to explain it. It is the fact that in the midst of external tension, God can give an inner peace.

    As far as the repeated attacks on me and my family, I must say that here again God gives one the strength to adjust to such acts of violence. None of these attacks came as a total surprise to me, because I counted the cost early in the struggle. To believe in nonviolence does not mean that violence will not be inflicted upon you. The believer in nonviolence is the person who will willingly allow himself to be the victim of violence but will never inflict violence upon another. He lives by the conviction that through his suffering and cross bearing, the social situation may be redeemed.

To the Mass Meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association

My Dear Friends and Co-Workers of the MIA:

While convalescing here in New York from an act of violence which was inflicted upon me two weeks ago, my mind inevitably turns toward you. Over and over again during these difficult days I have thought of you and our long association together. 

First, let me relieve your minds by saying that I am doing quite well. The five physicians who have been at my side from the moment of the operation have all agreed that I have made an amazing recovery. I am gradually regaining my strength and the natural pain that follows an operation is gradually passing away... 

May I urge you to continue in the noble struggle for freedom and justice that has been so courageously started in the Cradle of the Confederacy. Fortunately, God has given Montgomery several marvelous leaders and my absence does not in any way have to impede the program of our movement .... Our final destination is the City of Freedom and we must not stop until we have entered the sublime and lofty Metropolis . . . .

Your servant in the cause of Christ and Freedom,

Martin Luther King, Jr. 

October 6, 1958

The experience I had in New York gave me time to think. I became convinced that if the movement held to the spirit of nonviolence, our struggle and example would challenge and help redeem not only America but the world. It was my hope that we would remove from our souls the shackles of fear and the manacles of despair, and move on into the uncertain but promising future with the faith that the dawn of a new day was just around the horizon. 

The pathetic aspect of the experience was not the injury to one individual. It demonstrated to me that a climate of hatred and bitterness so permeated areas of our nation that inevitably deeds of extreme violence must erupt. I saw its wider social significance. The lack of restraint upon violence in our society along with the defiance of law by men in high places cannot but result in an atmosphere which engenders desperate deeds. 

I was intensely impatient to get back to continue the work we all knew had to be done regardless of the cost. So I rejoined the ranks of those who were working ceaselessly for the realization of the ideals of freedom and justice for all men. I did not have the slightest intention of turning back at that point.

NEXT: Chapter 13: Pilgrimage to Nonviolence