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       Chasing King's Killer: The Hunt for Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Assassin, p.1

           James L. Swanson
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Chasing King's Killer: The Hunt for Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Assassin

  To my father, Lennart Swanson


  And in memory of John Hope Franklin


  I was fifteen years old—perhaps the same age as some of you—when I heard the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio. I felt like he was speaking directly to me—like he was saying, “You, John Lewis, you, too, can do something!” But what could a young boy do to change the world?

  Three years later, when I was eighteen, I wrote to Dr. King and told him I wanted to enroll at Troy State, a college that refused to admit African Americans. Dr. King invited me to come see him. I had no money, so he sent me a round-trip Greyhound bus ticket to Montgomery, Alabama. When we met he laughed and asked, “Who is this young man? Are you the boy from Troy?” We had a wonderful talk. He changed my life that day, and I joined the civil rights movement and committed myself to love, peace, and nonviolence.

  The next years were a whirlwind: Sit-ins in 1960 at segregated lunch counters that refused to serve black people, where we were cursed, spit upon, had food and drinks poured over our heads, and were beaten; the Freedom Rides of 1961, where we rode interstate buses through the segregated South, and were attacked by mobs, and I was left beaten and unconscious, lying in a pool of blood. You might ask if I knew how dangerous it might be? Yes, I did. At dinner the night before our first trip, the Freedom Riders joked that this might be our “Last Supper.” There was a real possibility that we might not return—that we might even be killed.

  But somebody had to be willing to do something. And I knew this—the civil rights movement depended on young people. We had to take risks, to put ourselves in harm’s way, so that others could stand up.

  In 1963, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, I was asked—as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—to be one of the speakers. I was only twenty-three years old. There were 250,000 people spread out across the National Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial when I saw Dr. King step up and say, “I have a dream.”

  In 1965, we marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to demonstrate for the Voting Rights Act. When our peaceful protest tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the police attacked. I was hit with a nightstick and the blow fractured my skull. I thought I saw death, but I didn’t die. I still have the scars on my head. For crossing a bridge. For standing up. For voting rights. For freedom.

  Then came April 4, 1968, when an assassin’s bullet changed the course of history. For those who lived through the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., something died in all of us that day. After the assassination, something died in America. The sense of hope, of optimism, of possibility was replaced by horror and despair. It was a dark, dark time. I never believed in any man as much as I believed in Martin Luther King, Jr. From the time I was fifteen until the day he died, he was the person who made me who I was. He made me the man I am. When Martin was killed I felt like I had lost part of myself. But we picked ourselves up yet again.

  Then we suffered another loss. Just two months later, Senator Robert Kennedy was shot and killed. I was with him that night. I cried for all the fallen, all the countless individuals who gave everything they had, but I knew we couldn’t stop. We couldn’t give up. Sometimes we get bruised, sometimes we get knocked down, but we have the will, the courage, and the ability to get up. But there was one thing that didn’t die—the dream.

  In this thrilling, beautiful, and tragic book, James Swanson takes me back to the days of my youth, all the joys and all the sorrows. He portrays Dr. King as he really was: a man of bravery, vision, and hope. He captures the man I knew, my hero, my big brother, and my friend. It was fifty years ago, and I miss him still.

  This is a book that every young American should read. James Swanson has told the story, and now I say to you: Tell the story, tell the story, and tell it over and over again.


  Member of Congress

  Washington, D.C.

  September 21, 2017

  Table of Contents

  Foreword by John Lewis

  Prologue: “A Sneeze Meant Death”

  Part One: Introduction to Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement

  1865-1958: Jim Crow America

  The Early Years

  1955-1956: Montgomery Bus Boycott

  1959-1962: On the Rise: Lunch Counters, Freedom Riders, And Ole Miss

  1963: Tragedies and Triumphs: Protests in Birmingham, A Letter From Jail, And a March on Washington

  1963, Continued: Disaster and Hope: A Bombing in Birmingham, The Assassination of a President, And a New Leader

  1964: From the Civil Rights Bill and the Nobel Prize to a Murder and a Slander

  1965: New Challenges and Warning Signs: The Assassination of Malcolm X, The Battle for Selma, The Voting Rights Act, And the Watts Riots

  1966: A Year of Doubts and Divisions: Chicago, Black Panthers, And Militants

  1967: Splitting the Movement and Opposition to the Vietnam War

  Part Two: A Collision Course

  April 23, 1967: A Jail Break

  1968: A Very Bad Year

  Part Three: The Assassination

  Planning a Murder

  March 30-31, 1968: Momentous Days

  April 1 and 2, 1968: Countdown to Memphis

  April 3, 1968: A Great Day - "I Would Like to Live"

  April 4, 1968: The Last Day

  Part Four: Manhunt!

  April 4: Escaping Memphis

  April 4: To the Hospital

  April 4: A Hot Tip and a Hoax

  April 4: Aftermath at the Motel and Across the Nation

  April 5, 1968: The FBI Investigation

  April 9, 1968: Farewell to a King

  April 16-20, 1968: The Assassin Identified

  June 4-8, 1968: Another Assassination and an Arrest

  A Year Like No Other


  Places to Visit

  For Further Study

  Federal Holiday Chronology

  James Earl Ray: Arrests, Prison Record, and Escapes

  Source Notes



  Credits and Permissions


  About the Author


  In the fall of 1958, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a twenty-nine-year-old minister in Montgomery, Alabama, who had recently risen to national prominence as a civil rights activist, traveled to New York City to promote his first book.

  He almost didn’t make it out of town alive.

  New York was his first stop on a national publicity tour for his book Stride Toward Freedom. The memoir was about his involvement in the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. A local law had said that only whites were allowed to sit in the front of public buses; black passengers had to sit in back. The law also required that when a bus was full, blacks sitting in the back had to give up their seats to white people. To protest this racial discrimination, blacks refused to ride the buses of Montgomery.

  King’s leadership of the boycott had transformed him from a little-known preacher into an important civil rights leader. He was at the dawn of what promised to be a brilliant career.

  Display ads featuring the book cover and King’s photograph had already been placed in newspapers across the country. He was excited to travel to Manhattan, and he expected friendly treatment in the most important city in the North. Many New Yorkers were receptive to his message and hoped to see him in person. And King was eager to meet them.

  King arrived in New
York City on Monday, September 15, 1958. For several days, there would be book signings, media appearances, and public events. A highlight of the trip was a rally of five thousand people in front of the Hotel Theresa in Harlem on the evening of Friday, September 19. The baseball star Jackie Robinson appeared onstage; the famous musician Duke Ellington and his orchestra played; New York governor Averell Harriman and his opponent in the gubernatorial campaign, Nelson Rockefeller, made political speeches. And of course, King himself also spoke.

  A group of twelve picketers struck a rare discordant note, some of them carrying signs that read BUY BLACK. They were led by Lewis Michaux, owner of the renowned National Memorial African Bookstore on West 125th Street, which specialized in black history, literature, and culture. And they were aggrieved that King was scheduled to sign books the next day at the white-owned Blumstein’s department store just down the block. Although Michaux was hurt that he had not been asked to host this event, he and his followers staged a respectful demonstration.

  Another unhappy person that night who was not so courteous was a strange, well-dressed black woman who stood behind the speaker’s platform and heckled the white dignitaries as they addressed the crowd, yelling that she wanted nothing to do with anyone or anything white.

  King ignored her.

  “Many of you,” he said, “had hoped I would come here to bring you a message of hate against the white man … I come here with no such message. Black supremacy is just as bad as white supremacy. I come here with a message of love rather than hate. Don’t let any man make you stoop so low that you have hate. Have love in your hearts to those who would do you wrong.”

  These comments provoked the woman even more.

  When the meeting was over, one of King’s hosts worriedly suggested that he consider having a bodyguard the next day—his last in New York.

  King dismissed the idea.

  On Saturday, September 20, a little after 3:00 p.m., King arrived at Blumstein’s department store, on West 125th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. A desk and chair had been set up for him in a roped-off area behind the shoe department on the first floor. He sat down and posed for photographs with several dignitaries, including Arthur Spingarn, the legendary president of the NAACP, and Anna Arnold Hedgeman, a leader in the civil rights movement and assistant to New York City mayor Robert F. Wagner.

  A stack of books awaited King’s signature. He was not there to give a speech, but just to sit at the desk, chat one-on-one with customers, and autograph the books they bought. He enjoyed this kind of interaction: low-key, personal, and amiable.

  King posed for more photographs, including one with an honor guard of young black girls who wore sashes over their right shoulders, emblazoned with the name of their school, Wadleigh Junior High. In the same photo, two smiling white boys stood in front of the desk, shaking hands with King, who beamed at them. It was a photograph that symbolized King’s ideals of racial harmony.

  King began to sign books, devoting a little time to each guest, exchanging friendly words. When the line had dwindled to about twenty people, a woman suddenly cut to the front. She was tall and dressed in an attractive jacket, white blouse, blue skirt, and heels. She wore earrings and fashionable cat-eye glasses, and she carried a big handbag. No one seemed to realize it was the angry woman from the previous night. Her name was Izola Ware Curry. She was forty-two and divorced, a Georgia native who had moved to New York and had worked as a maid.

  She paused in front of the desk. No one stood between her and King. She was much closer to him now than she’d been at the rally.

  She faced King and looked into his eyes.

  She possessed a loaded .32-caliber semiautomatic pistol that was concealed in her bra. She could have easily reached for it now, but she had another weapon hidden in her handbag, a Japanese letter opener in a bright crimson sheath. This was no ordinary letter opener: It was, according to someone who would soon have cause to examine it closely, an “extremely narrow, rigid, inflexible steel blade 6 to 8 inches in length, which had apparently been sharpened along its length to the point.” With its wood handle, it resembled a miniature samurai sword and had the penetrating power of an ice pick.

  “Are you Martin Luther King?” she asked.

  “Yes, I am,” King answered.

  Curry shouted, “I’ve been after you for five years! You’ve made enough people suffer. I have to do it! I have to do it!”

  For some reason, she had chosen the blade over the pistol, and gripping the letter opener in her hand, she thrust her arm up in the air.

  Stunned onlookers—customers, schoolchildren, and others—were helpless to stop her as she swung her arm in a powerful, arcing blow.

  King saw the blade bearing down on him and instinctively tried to parry it with his arm. His reaction deflected but did not block the blade’s momentum. It sliced his hand, inflicting a flesh wound. Then Curry buried the letter opener in King’s chest. It punched through his breastbone and lodged two and a quarter inches deep inside him. She had struck him so hard that the handle even broke off.

  Anna Hedgeman, the mayor’s assistant, was standing only a few feet away. “It happened so fast it was incredible,” she said.

  Photographer Vernoll Coleman was at Blumstein’s doing publicity work for King’s publisher. “I was arranging a [photo] when the whole thing happened,” he said. “I thought the woman had simply swung at him or slapped him. But when I took a second look I saw that thing sticking out of [his] chest.”

  Coleman reacted with a newsman’s lightning instinct. He raised his Hasselblad camera and snapped a photograph that would appear in newspapers around the world: a dazed Martin Luther King, Jr., with a blade sticking out of his chest while a woman bent over him to wipe the blood from his wounded hand.

  “Women began screaming,” the photographer recalled, “and the crowd tried to get at this woman.” One witness shouted, “She cut Dr. King!”

  King hoped to calm them. “That’s all right!” he said. “That’s all right! Everything’s going to be all right.”

  But he was in shock and he stayed seated. The dazed look on his face suggested that he did not fully comprehend what had just happened or how seriously he had been wounded. Blood oozed from the wound, staining his crisp white cotton dress shirt.

  “I’ve been after him for years!” Curry screamed again. “I’m glad I done it!”

  Then she tried to run away. The women in King’s entourage chased her. Waving their umbrellas like clubs, they shouted: “Catch her, don’t let her go!” Walter Pettiford, an advertising executive for the Amsterdam News, New York City’s leading black newspaper, grabbed her by the left arm and spun her around. Harry Dixon, the store’s floor manager, raised his hands and pleaded, “Please don’t harm her.”

  Curry kept shouting: “Dr. King has ruined my life. He is no good … I’ve been after him for years. I finally was able to get him now.”

  A security guard named Clifford Jackson detained Curry, and he and a police officer hustled her out of the store and into a cab, bound for a nearby police station.

  Someone approached King and reached for the letter opener, yielding to the irresistible temptation to yank the blade out, but a voice shouted: “Don’t pull it out. You’ll kill him.” Removing the blade might allow blood to pour out of the wound like a cork being pulled out of a bottle.

  No one on the scene knew it, but the blade was so close to King’s aorta that any sudden expansion of his chest, from coughing or sneezing, could have pushed the main artery of the heart directly into the point of the blade. If that artery was punctured, King would bleed to death before he arrived at a hospital.

  A dispatcher at Harlem Hospital received the first phone call. A voice on the other end said that there had been a stabbing at Blumstein’s and asked for help. One minute later, an ambulance and its crew of driver Ronald Adams and nurse Russie Lee went racing down Seventh Avenue from the hospital to the department store. They did not know who had been at
tacked. Upon arriving and finding King with the blade in his chest, Lee ordered him not to stand up. Next she told Adams to bring the ambulance around to the back door of the store, on 124th Street. Then a police officer and Adams carried King, still sitting in the chair, to the ambulance, where Lee made sure that they laid their patient down gently on his back. Adams got behind the wheel, and the nurse climbed into the back to sit near King. “He was conscious, and I told him not to touch the letter opener,” she recalled. “He didn’t speak, but his eyes told me he knew what I meant.”

  A little after 4:00 p.m., almost a half hour after the attack, King, still conscious, was brought into the Harlem Hospital Emergency Room. Doctors and nurses rushed to his side. Then he looked up and, startled, came face-to-face with a woman he recognized. It was Izola Curry! But she had not escaped from custody or tracked him to the hospital to kill him. Police officers had brought her there for King to identify her as his assailant.

  After this unnerving encounter, doctors decided that it was too risky to remove the weapon without surgery, so they hurriedly prepared King for the operation and placed him under anesthesia. He drifted off to sleep in the operating room, not knowing if he would reawaken.

  But he did. A few hours later he opened his eyes.

  He was still alive.

  Word of the attack spread across the country. Black churches in New York City held prayer services. In Chicago, the legendary black newspaper the Chicago Defender reported that “the assault on King had barely been reported by radio newscasts when hundreds of telephone calls began to flood the switchboard.” The calls “came from people who could not believe their ears, and from others who did believe the news, but wanted fuller details.”

  Police in New York told the press that Curry was “emotionally disturbed,” but it was not long before someone raised the question of conspiracy. One newspaper reported: “One angle of the case now being studied by police as well as civil rights groups is the possibility that Mrs. Curry might have been ‘put up’ to an attempt to kill King by white segregation and White Citizens Council groups in the South.”

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