The skies were clear on Sept. 20, 1958. Al Howard, a 31-year-old patrolman with three years at the New York Police Department, was driving his usual beat in Harlem that Saturday afternoon. He and his rookie partner, Officer Philip Romano, had just met hours before. The alert cops listened as a dispatcher’s voice came through the radio to report a disturbance at the Blumstein department store. Howard stepped on the gas and sped toward the scene with sirens blaring.
When they arrived, they heard screaming coming from the second floor of the store. The officers ran toward the chaos and saw a woman restrained on the ground and an African American man dressed in a dark suit sitting motionless in a chair. The man was 29-year-old Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and he had just been stabbed in the chest with a 7-inch steel letter opener. The civil rights activist was at the store to sign copies of his book, Stride Toward Freedom — about the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama — when the deranged woman attacked him.
Appalled local leaders looked on in fear, and another hysterical woman stuck her hand out in an attempt to remove the blade from King’s chest. Howard, however, intervened. He knew the weapon was likely preventing King from bleeding to death, and he immediately took control of the situation.
“I said, ‘Take me to a telephone,’” Howard related to NYPD deputy commissioner John Miller in 2018. “I called Harlem Hospital. I said: ‘Send an ambulance. I have this man who’s got a knife sticking out of his chest. What do we do?’ The doctor came on the phone and said: ‘Don’t take it out. We’ll send an ambulance right away.’”
A large crowd was forming at the front of the store, and Howard instructed the doctor to send the ambulance to the back. Howard then announced to the crowd that King would be taken out of the front door on 125th Street. His lie distracted the onlookers, and he continued the charade, clearing a path out front while his partner and others carried King, still sitting in the chair, to the ambulance. King was rushed to the hospital and underwent emergency surgery to save his life. The hospital soon had 40 people outside the operating room offering to donate blood.
The woman who had stabbed King was arrested and later identified as Izola Ware Curry, a 42-year-old mentally ill African American woman. She had targeted the civil rights leader because in her paranoia, she was convinced King and others were persecuting her.
When King recovered and learned the woman responsible for his injury was mentally ill, he decided to not press charges. He famously recalled the attack in his “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech:
“The X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery,” King said in his speech, delivered on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated. “And once that’s punctured, you’re drowned in your own blood — that’s the end of you.”
The remarkable story didn’t result in Howard going on a “hero’s tour” as one might have expected an ordinary person thrust into the spotlight to do. He didn’t sign his life’s rights away to Hollywood or take an advance to write his autobiography. Instead, the humble beat cop kept doing his job.
“He was old police,” his son, Al Howard Jr., 72, told The New York Times. “They did their work and they came home and they were father, husband.” Howard served 31 years on the force and retired as a distinguished detective. He helped bring the Son of Sam serial killer to justice and received 19 commendations throughout his career. In his post-retirement life, he owned and operated the Showman’s Café, Harlem’s last remaining jazz club and bar. In October 2020, Howard passed away at the age of 93 after contracting COVID-19.
Two years before his passing, the 91-year-old recounted the story to Miller, the NYPD deputy commissioner, confirming the rumors that he had saved King’s life. He added that years after the incident, he ran into Dr. King in a sandwich shop in Harlem. They stared at each other and paused. Howard walked over to King’s table and asked, “Do you remember me?”
“I know I know you,” King replied. “I can’t remember from where.”
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.
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