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Might A Brush With Death Set The Stage For Greatness?

Martin Luther King Jr., with his wife, Coretta, at a Harlem hospital after he was stabbed by Izola Ware Curry in 1958.
Martin Luther King Jr., with his wife, Coretta, at a Harlem hospital after he was stabbed by Izola Ware Curry in 1958.

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 New York City. 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 that he would have died if he had sneezed before they could operate.

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 non-violent 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 9th grader in White Plains who said, " 'Dear Dr. King ... I'm 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 and history.

Winston Churchill was struck by a car in New York in 1931, and almost didn't survive. Would England and the west have survived 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 and 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 had been spared for a purpose. It may cause any of us to reset the clocks we keep on our lives as we realize that 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'm so happy that I didn't sneeze."

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.