SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A name from the small print of history died this week. Izola Ware Curry was 98. She died in a nursing home in Queens. In September 1958, Dr. Martin Luther King was signing books in a Harlem department store when Izola Curry stabbed him with a letter opener. The tip of the blade touched his aorta. A surgeon later told Dr. King he that would have died if he'd sneezed before they could operate.
Izola Curry was arrested and diagnosed with a severe state of insanity. She spent the rest of her life in state psychiatric hospitals then convalescent facilities. Dr. King was 29 and had begun to sound his call to defeat segregation with nonviolent action from church pews and podiums around the country. He said when he could I am deeply sorry that a deranged woman should have injured herself in seeking to injure me.
Ten years later, in the speech he gave in a steamy Memphis church on what turned out to be the night before he would be shot to death, Dr. King recalled a letter he got in the hospital from a ninth grader in White Plains who said dear Dr. King, I am so happy that you didn't sneeze. If I had sneezed, he said, he would have missed the freedom rides, the civil rights bill, Selma and the March on Washington, where Dr. King said he tried to tell America about a dream.
There were many compelling people alongside Dr. King on those marches. I have to think that other legends would have risen in his place to rally America to civil rights. But Izola Curry's death might make us appreciate the fickleness of life in history.
Winston Churchill was struck by a car in New York in 1931 and almost didn't survive. Would England and the West survive if he hadn't been alive to offer nothing but blood, tears, toil and sweat? George Orwell was shot through the throat during the Spanish Civil War. Would our ideas of freedom or tyranny be different today if Orwell hadn't lived to write "Animal Farm" in 1984? John F. Kennedy survived the sinking of his PT boat, but his older brother, Joe, who was supposed to be the political prince of the family, died in a secret wartime mission.
Biographers have suggested that feeling the breath of death may have made each man figure he'd been spared for a purpose. It may cause any of us to reset the clocks we keep on our lives as we realize the time we have to do what we care about is precious, delicate and unpredictable. As Dr. King told that Memphis church the night before he died, I am so happy that I didn't sneeze.
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