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In this Sept. 21, 1958 file photo, Martin Luther King Jr. recovers from surgery in bed at New York's Harlem Hospital on following an operation to remove steel letter opener from his chest after being stabbed by a mentally disturbed woman as he signed books in Harlem. (AP Photo/John Lent, File)
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 22 February 2024

Regi Taylor wants you to know how the civil rights movement as we know it came close to an abrupt ending in 1958.

The Baltimore-based writer and artist has penned ‘Uptown One Saturday Night,’ a longform look at the night Martin Luther King Jr. was stabbed by Izola Ware Curry at a book-signing in Harlem. Curry, a Black woman, was later found not mentally competent to stand trial and would spend the rest of her life institutionalized; the comments she made about her motivations for the attack aligned with her schizophrenia diagnosis.

Taylor writes, "(King) recognized his near murder as a test of his ability to faithfully abide by his Christian ideals and so he publicly professed his sincere forgiveness of Ms. Curry's attempt on his life before his release from the hospital once he became aware of her mental condition."

But in researching the events surrounding the attack, Taylor found inconsistencies about Curry herself, as well as concerns that her FBI file was allegedly disposed of in the 90s, many years before the woman’s death. He lays those questions next to a thorough exploration of how the best of Harlem responded to King in his time of need, with the tip of a sharpened letter opener lodged perilously close to his aorta.

It is not the first book on the subject, but it is comprehensive in detailing the biographies and intersecting lines of the attacker, the responders and everyone who had a part in delivering King to Harlem Hospital and subsequently saving his life. The details are at the very least fascinating trivia, but often serve to further contextualize this night in American history.

To name a few: Walter Pettiford, a Black 21-year-old advertising representative, restrained Curry from further attacking King. New York Police Department officer Philip Romano prevented a panicked bystander from removing the blade from King’s chest, while his colleague Al Howard immediately assessed the severity of the situation, phoned ahead to Harlem Hospital, and misdirected crowds so he and Romano could secure MLK and carry him to safety; interestingly, Howard would later be on the team that apprehended “Son of Sam” serial killer David Berkowitz. Prior to operating on King that night, trauma surgeon John Cordice Jr. had been the Tuskegee Airmen Fighter Pilot Brigade unit physician, and shortly after, was part of the team to perform the first open heart surgery in France.

Taylor pushed to complete Uptown One Saturday Night in time for Black History Month, but he also turned in his manuscript before the death of his mother last week, and finds himself in a position to revisit and document his own family’s personal history. In writing his mother’s obituary, Taylor says he is articulating what he wants readers to come away with: The closeness and even immediacy of events often dismissed as historical and, in effect, irrelevant.

The Skanner spoke with Taylor by phone about his work, which will be published by Harlem World Magazine’s press.

The Skanner: What motivated you to write this book?

Taylor: What I published doesn’t exist anywhere. There’s no accounting of the story that includes all the personalities that were involved. I wanted to make sure that got chronicled and that was immortalized once and for all, so someone could go and really see what transpired and who was involved.

The Skanner: What surprised you as you were researching this?

This pistol that she bought in Florida (but did not use in the attack) – this woman, at best, was making maybe $18 to $20 a week. So to pay almost $30 for a pistol, that’s almost two weeks’ salary at the exclusion of all her other living expenses. There are some anomalies there that just don’t make sense.

Why did the FBI destroy her FBI file 24 years before she died? What was in it? She died in 2015. She spent 57 years confined, and my thinking was, at some point maybe she started to come around? Maybe she made some comments to someone? It’s just curious.

At the same time, the FBI was definitely surveilling MLK. So if they’re aware that this woman was a threat to MLK, were they present at the rally (the night before the book-signing)? Did they observe this confrontation this woman had with MLK? Why weren’t they anywhere in the vicinity the next day (at the book signing)? This woman lives two blocks from a venue where MLK was (later) attacked. Why were they nowhere around, just like they were nowhere around when he was shot 10 years later in Memphis? It just doesn’t make sense to me; there’s something nefarious there. I won’t posit a theory, but I’m just asking the question. 

The Skanner: What do you hope that readers come away with after reading your book?

Taylor: Particularly the younger generation, people who only know Martin Luther King as a boulevard in their town or a day they have off from school, what I want them to realize is the journey that this man faced, and the fact that he faced down death. One of the sections of the book talks about Anna Hedgeman. She was a prolific champion of civil rights and education, and I was able to find her first-person, fly-on-the-wall account. She was actually there with Martin Luther King, steps away when he was stabbed, she accompanied him to the hospital in the ambulance, she signed him into the hospital for treatment. She had a bird’s eye view of the whole situation, and I want people to realize – particularly young people – this wasn’t just some guy who made a speech and got a day named in his honor.

I want people to realize that until Martin Luther King stood up and pushed back, we were under an apartheid system pretty much like South Africa of the 60s, 70s, 80s. And I want people to understand the peril this man faced down – he faced down death in 1958, and then he was killed in 1968, all in the name of getting rid of apartheid in America.

I wanted people to see that it was a struggle, it was contentious.

I wanted people to see that it was adversarial, not just among racists

And I mention in the book that none of the civil rights successes would have happened without people of goodwill, of every race, and people of goodwill of every socioeconomic status.

The Skanner: Your book humanizes King, by which I mean you talk about not only the dangers he faced, but the discomfort – for example, his having to stand for nearly 100 miles of a bus trip home after he gave his first speech at the age of 15, and instead of feeling well earned pride at his accomplishment, fuming that he and his teacher had been displaced by White passengers. In describing the day-to-day, you depict King as more accessible and more recent than he is depicted during MLK Day messaging. In a sense, you’re bringing attention to the short timeline between him and us.

Taylor: I talk about how people with European ancestry just came over and assimilated – not so easily; anybody with an accent was an outsider, and then they were able to assimilate. But Black people, who have been here for over 400 years, 16 generations, are still the outcasts.

Here’s what it breaks down to: 25 years is a generation, and slavery went from 1619 to 1865, roughly 250 years. That’s 10 generations of slavery. From 1865, after the Civil War, to 1965, when LBJ signed the Civil Rights (Act), that was a century. So for 10 generations there was slavery, for four generations there was apartheid, Jim Crow. That’s 14 generations. Only in the last 50-odd years, since Martin Luther King’s assassination, have Black people in America had any semblance of citizenship, despite being here all this time. And that is still tentative, because it was never intended for us to have it. If the establishment of the status quo had had its way, if Martin Luther King and the people who supported him had not been such champions of civil rights – we’d still be in apartheid, we’d still be in Jim Crow in the United States. It was never, ever intended for Black people to enjoy full citizenship. 

The Skanner: How early were you aware of that?

Taylor: My mother just passed last week...my mother was raised by her maternal grandfather, and I got to meet him. He died the year after Martin Luther King was assassinated. He was born in 1879, and I remember every day when I came home from school, he would say “Hey son, what were your lessons today?” and he genuinely wanted to know. I came in one day and said I found out that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves.

He chuckled and he said, well son, let me tell you how it was. He was born on the plantation where his parents were real slaves. He was born on a plantation 14 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. And he said, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘I was born a slave and I was raised a slave.

Think about it this way: If you can’t read, and you can’t write, and you have no money and no means, and you have nowhere to go and no way to get there.

If some guy off somewhere signs a piece of paper that says you’re free, what does that really mean? If people have owned you and your family and your grandparents, for generations, where’s everybody supposed to go? How will the culture just automatically change, just like that?’ And he said it didn’t.

I’m writing my mother’s obituary, and I talked to a couple of the elders in my family to try to get some insight into my mother’s upbringing and youth. I was talking to one great-aunt who’s almost 90 years old, and she grew up with my mother. She said, ‘The grandfather that you knew, every Sunday he’d pack us into the car, right outside of D.C., and we would go visit his relatives in Washington D.C.’ This was the mid-1940s, and she said they lived on a plantation, and they lived in the slave quarters. She said, ‘It was no longer an active plantation, but they were your relatives who still lived in the slave quarters in the 1940s that had been there for over 100 years because they had nowhere else to go, no way to get there.’ Some of the slave quarters had electricity, some of them didn’t.

That really brought it home. That’s what I want people to understand. This latest generation, people particularly under 40, they have no clue. They think it was always the way it is now: You can go where you want, you can buy what you want, you can live where you want, you can marry who you want, you can say what you want. It was not always that way. And the remnants of it are still out there if you just lift up the rug and peek under there.

I went to Mount St. Mary’s College in Maryland, it’s a less than 10-minute drive from Camp David. When I went there, the college was celebrating its 180th anniversary, and the year I went there as a freshman, 1978, that was the year they decided to tear down the slave quarters. 

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