By Kelvin Muhia
On the fateful day of September 20, 1958, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was signing copies of his newly released book “Stride Toward Freedom” in Blumstein’s Department Store in Harlem. While in the store, a well-dressed middle-aged black woman approached King and asked whether it was really him. When King replied yes, the woman stabbed him with an ivory letter opener deep into his chest, inches away from his aorta.
With the help of two police officers (one black and the other white), Martin Luther King, Jr. was warned not to speak or sneeze to avoid any further injuries by the letter opener. He was then carried while seated on a chair and rushed to Harlem Hospital.
Upon arrival at Harlem Hospital, renowned vascular and trauma surgeons, John W.V. Cordice and Emil Naclerio, were quickly summoned from a wedding to get ready for an emergency operation. During a 2.5-hour operation, the two doctors operated on King’s chest and removed the ivory letter opener that was inches away from puncturing his aorta. According to the surgeons, the warning issued by the two policemen was correct because the edge of the blade was just an inch away, and a single word or a sneeze would have been enough to end King’s life.
After Martin Luther King, Jr. was rushed to hospital, his would-be assassin was taken to custody, diagnosed with a mental illness, and spent the rest of her life in a mental institution. After recovery, King quickly forgave the woman, saying that she was in need of help.
Although racial discrimination was among the major challenges facing African Americans during that time, various professionals working together to save the influential leader’s life, regardless of race. The two policemen at the scene, Al Howard and Phil Romano, were of mixed race and responded to the emergency signal immediately. The two doctors who operated on King’s chest– John W.V. Cordice and Emil Naclerio— were also of mixed race and worked together to remove the letter opener.
Were the operation unsuccessful, King may have died before accomplishing major works as a civil rights leader.