'I've seen the Promised Land': How a brush with death shaped Martin Luther King's message

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Yahoo News
Martin Luther King Jr. recovers from surgery in bed at New York’s Harlem Hospital following an operation to remove steel letter opener from his chest after being stabbed by a mentally disturbed woman, Sept. 21, 1958. (Photo: John Lent/AP)
Martin Luther King Jr. recovers from surgery in bed at New York’s Harlem Hospital following an operation to remove steel letter opener from his chest after being stabbed by a mentally disturbed woman, Sept. 21, 1958. (Photo: John Lent/AP)

Fifty years ago, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr., who preached nonviolent resistance to oppression and war, was shot to death in Memphis. He was 39 years old. He left behind a wife and four children and a nation still riven by the divisions he had devoted his life to healing. Yahoo News takes a look back at his life and his legacy in this special report. Jonathan Darman assesses King as a man not without flaws, but with a passion for justice and a conviction that grace can still be found here among us sinners on earth. Senior Editor Jerry Adler looks back on the fateful last year of King’s life, beginning with his electrifying, and controversial, Riverside Church address against the war in Vietnam. National Correspondent Holly Bailey goes back to Selma, Ala., whose poverty moved King to increasingly turn his focus to economic justice, and finds not much has changed in the years since. Reporter Michael Walsh looks at how King almost diedin an attack a decade earlier, and how the knowledge of his mortality shaped his ministry and message. Gabriel Noble’s video explains how a new generation of activists draws inspiration from King’s message.

A half-century ago, Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination by James Earl Ray, a virulent racist with a criminal past, robbed the civil rights movement of its brightest luminary. But another attempt on King’s life, had it been successful, would have stolen even more.

In September 1958, Izola Ware Curry, a deranged African-American woman from Georgia, stabbed King with a letter opener while he was signing copies of his book “Stride Toward Freedom” at Blumstein’s department store in Harlem. King later said that the tip struck his aorta, and that his entire chest had to be opened to extract it. If he had sneezed, doctors told him, his aorta could have ruptured, drowning him in his own blood. Fortunately, King did not sneeze.

If he had died then, America would have missed his presence for the eventful decade that followed, including the Freedom Rides, the “I Have a Dream” speech, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Selma marches.

Stanford University historian Clayborne Carson, who was selected by Coretta Scott King to edit and publish her late husband’s papers, said King was well aware that his career would open him to threats against his life.

“He was always aware of his mortality, and that just brought it home,” Carson told Yahoo News.

“His home had been bombed before that. He’d been threatened on numerous occasions. He had that experience in Montgomery where he actually considered leaving the movement because of all the threats, not just against himself, but his family.”

Martin Luther King Jr. urges calm from the porch of his home, which was damaged by a bomb during a boycott of the Montgomery, Ala.., bus system to protect segregation in 1956.  With him, left to right, are: Fire Chief R.L. Lampley; Mayor W.A. Gayle (in uniform) and City Police Commissioner Clyde Sellers. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)
Martin Luther King Jr. urges calm from the porch of his home, which was damaged by a bomb during a boycott of the Montgomery, Ala.., bus system to protect segregation in 1956.  With him, left to right, are: Fire Chief R.L. Lampley; Mayor W.A. Gayle (in uniform) and City Police Commissioner Clyde Sellers. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)

King had said, before that occasion, that God gave him the courage to continue at a time when he considered stepping down as leader of the movement. In January 1957, he told his congregation at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., that a voice spoke to him on a sleepless morning one year earlier — compelling him to preach the Gospel and stand for truth and righteousness.

“Since that morning I can stand up without fear. So, I’m not afraid of anybody this morning,” King said. “Tell Montgomery they can keep shooting and I’m going to stand up to them. Tell Montgomery they can keep bombing and I’m going to stand up to them.”

So why did a black woman from the American South, a person for whom King put his life on the line, want him dead?

Curry, who grew up outside Adrian, Ga., harbored paranoid delusions about the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She reportedly wrote unhinged letters to the Federal Bureau of Investigation claiming it was a Communist front that was actively trailing her. She blamed the NAACP — rather than her deteriorating mental state and unsettling behavior — for sabotaging her attempts to find steady employment. Her paranoia shifted to King as he rose to prominence during the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and 1956.

“First of all, she was crazy. She spent the rest of her life in a mental institution,” Carson explained. “But to the extent that there was any rationale, she heard black nationalist harangues against King, that he was a Communist. All the combinations of things that might appeal to someone who was mentally unbalanced to begin with.”

A grand jury indicted Curry for attempted murder, but a psychiatrist determined that she suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and had an extremely low I.Q. She was committed to a mental hospital for the criminally insane and spent the rest of her life in psychiatric hospitals and nursing homes.

Nowadays, the Curry incident is mostly remembered for its retelling in King’s final speech: “I Have Been to the Mountaintop,” delivered in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968 — a day before his murder. He explained how a “demented black woman,” not referring to Curry by name, attacked him, and he described the outpouring of supportive letters he received in the hospital. He didn’t remember what President Eisenhower or New York Gov. Averill Harriman had written, he said, but he would never forgot the letter from a ninth-grade student at White Plains High School in Westchester County, N.Y.

Izola Ware Curry is arrested for stabbing Martin Luther King Jr. with a letter opener at a department store in Harlem while he was there for a book signing, on Sept. 20, 1958. (Photo: Pat Candido/NY Daily News via Getty Images)
Izola Ware Curry is arrested for stabbing Martin Luther King Jr. with a letter opener at a department store in Harlem while he was there for a book signing, on Sept. 20, 1958. (Photo: Pat Candido/NY Daily News via Getty Images)

“While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune and of your suffering,” she wrote. “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.”

“And I want to say tonight,” King went on, “I want to say tonight that I, too, am happy that I didn’t sneeze.” This little girl’s letter provided the “if I had sneezed” refrain that King used to revisit the many accomplishments of the movement, before predicting that he may soon die but that “the Promised Land” was in sight.

“I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”

In the decade between Curry’s assassination attempt and that speech, King persevered through cross burnings, bomb scares and a shotgun blast into his home. One day after that speech, King was shot dead on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Fifty years later, his message is still relevant, but his mission isn’t complete.

According to Carson, King mentioned his mortality on numerous occasions, but this reference is remembered because it was included in a great speech, which starts off with King revisiting the meaning of his life, a more common theme in his late speeches. Carson said the importance of King not reaching the Promised Land has less to do with the possibility of an early death than that he might never see his dreams fulfilled — whether or not he reached old age.

“Even if he lived he wouldn’t get there, because his goals were much broader than just civil rights reform. I think it’s very significant that in a 1952 letter to Coretta he pledges that his ministry will be about a warless world, a better distribution of wealth and a brotherhood that transcends race or color,” Carson said. “When you think about those three goals, those haven’t been achieved. He certainly hadn’t ended war or poverty or brought about the kind of broad community that he had talked about all his life.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with his mother, Alberta Williams King, and his wife, Coretta Scott King, visiting King in Harlem Hospital as he recovers from a stabbing. (Photo: Al Pucci/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with his mother, Alberta Williams King, and his wife, Coretta Scott King, visiting King in Harlem Hospital as he recovers from a stabbing. (Photo: Al Pucci/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

On March 3, 1968, a month before his death, King delivered the lesser-known “Unfulfilled Dreams” speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga. He mused about why he had fallen short of reaching some of his aspirations and compared himself to the Biblical King David, who never got to see the Temple he started to construct. King described life as a “continual story of shattered dreams” but praised God for giving humans meaningful objectives into which they can pour their hearts.

“And so often as you set out to build the temple of peace you are left lonesome. You are left discouraged. You are left bewildered,” King said. “Well, that is the story of life. And the thing that makes me happy is that I can hear a voice crying through the vista of time, saying, ‘It may not come today or it may not come tomorrow, but it is well that it is within thine heart. It’s well that you are trying.’ You may not see it. The dream may not be fulfilled, but it’s just good that you have a desire to bring it into reality. It’s well that it’s in thine heart.”

And as King focused on being a virtuous man, powerful people were plotting to destroy him. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover harbored a deep hatred for King and thought he was influenced by Communists. In late 1964, the FBI anonymously sent a package to King that included a tape that allegedly contained audio from one of his trysts and a letter threatening to defame King by publicizing his infidelities if he didn’t do “the only thing left for you to do.” King understood this as encouraging him to commit suicide.

Jonathan Rieder, a professor of sociology at Barnard College, Columbia University, is the author of “Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation” and “The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr.” He said King had to come to terms with the possibility of his own death early on and helped others in the movement do the same thing. King conceived of this “sacrificial burden” as part of the price of making the U.S. a truly democratic nation.

“This was a sacrificial endeavor that he was engaged in, and he would often therefore identify with Jesus,” Rieder told Yahoo News. “His decision to go to jail in Birmingham in 1963 was, in a sense, an awareness that like his savior some would have to die and go to jail so that others could live. It’s a central theme of the Christian part of the civil rights movement.”

Living so closely with death, Rieder continued, King developed a wide repertoire of talks on the subject — ranging from hilarious and jokey to morbid and despondent. When King decided to lead demonstrations in Birmingham, Ala., where Bull Connor harshly enforced segregation, King met with a small group of his colleagues to warn them that they may be killed, according to Rieder.

“And then he would joke about it. He would say, ‘Now y’all think the Klan is going to get me? You will jump in front of the camera and they will get you,” Rieder said. “But I will preach the best funeral you ever had.’ Then he would go around and pick on some little foible or problem with each of his colleagues and do a hilarious funeral about them.”

Andrew Young, a close friend of King’s and the executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, once told Rieder that this mixture of solemnity and lightheartedness was King’s way of teaching them to accept the possibility of their death.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. makes his last public appearance at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968. The following day King was assassinated on his motel balcony. (Photo: Charles Kelly/AP)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. makes his last public appearance at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968. The following day King was assassinated on his motel balcony. (Photo: Charles Kelly/AP)

America would have been the worse for it, but King would have had a much easier life had he not dedicated his life to the civil rights movement. After assuming the mantle of the fight for racial integration, King was vilified by white racists, ridiculed by black nationalists, monitored by the FBI, arrested, threatened, attacked and ultimately murdered — all without, from his perspective, having his dreams come to fruition.

But in “Unfulfilled Dreams,” King concluded that God judges individuals on the “total bent of our lives” rather than “separate mistakes” because he knows his children are weak. Therefore, he said, it’s imperative to get your heart right and keep building your metaphorical temple — regardless of whether it will be finished.

“Salvation is being on the right road, not having reached a destination.”

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