If I had sneezed


“If I had sneezed.”

Those four words from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. might not be as widely recognized as the four he so famously spoke at the Lincoln Memorial: “I have a dream.”

But here’s the lesser-known, yet important, New York story behind them.

It was Sept. 20, 1958. Dr. King was at Blumstein’s, a store on West 125th Street in Harlem, where he was signing copies of his first book, “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story.”

In walked a woman — dressed to the nines — presumably for an autograph from the 29-year-old civil rights activist. But hidden beneath her lovely outfit were a letter opener and a loaded .25-caliber pistol.

The woman, Izola Ware Curry, approached Dr. King, drew the letter opener from her purse and stabbed him in the chest.

Dr. King could not immediately remove the blade; it was too close to his heart. He was told not to move an inch, not to speak. He was rushed to Harlem Hospital for emergency surgery.

The doctors later told him that any sudden movement — so much as a sneeze — could have cost him his life.

The frightening, near-fatal New York episode later became a point of inspiration in Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address, which he delivered on April 3, 1968, in Memphis, the day before he was assassinated.

“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 here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Ala., 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.”

“I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.”


Rev. Martin Luther King

Harlem Hospital

New York, N.Y.

Dear Reverend King —

Having just made out an inadequate (for the way I feel) (and for the need) check to Core — and having read your words quoted on their envelope about the “good people” + their silence — I think of you in a hospital having come off the critical list today I hope — (although I haven’t heard so)  — I am sure that the lady who did this to you must have been very confused and sick in her mind and I feel sure that you are the kind of a big person who can forgive her — even for this —

Once long ago when we lived in the village, my husband John and I knew your secretary, Bayard Rustin, and felt proud to be even an acquaintance of his — Please give our best to him — and know that we are both all for you and for whatever we can help to do in the direction of racial equality —

As we get older we tend to lose much of our ideologies — and I admit I have lost tem in many areas — But racial + religious equality is still something I want to fight for.

You probably know Rowland Watts who is a member of this community — and who deserves all our respect — I am so glad you didn’t sneeze!

My best, Mrs. John Kepler