When Harlem Nearly Killed King

Copyright © 2002 by Hugh Pearson

First trade paperback edition December 2003.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, by any means, including mechanical, electric, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Excerpts from
Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story
reprinted by arrangement with the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr., c/o Writers House as agent for the proprietor.
Copyright Martin Luther King 1963, copyright renewed 1991 Coretta Scott King
.

SEVEN STORIES PRESS
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Pearson, Hugh
When Harlem nearly killed King : the 1958 stabbing of Martin Luther King, Jr. /
Hugh Pearson.
p. cm.
eISBN: 978-1-60980-321-6
1. King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968—Assassination attempt, 1958. 2. Attempted murder—New York (State)—New York—History—20th century. 3. Harlem (New York, N.Y.)—History—20th century. 4. Harlem (New York, N.Y.)—Race relations. 5. New York (N.Y.)—History—1951–6. New York (N.Y.)—Race relations. 7. Stab wounds—Treatment—New York (State)—New York—History—20th century. 8. Harlem Hospital Center—History. I. Title.
E185.97.K5 P42 2002
364.15′24′092—dc21
2001007352

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, or fax on school letterhead to (212) 226-1411.

v3.1

PREFACE TO THE PAPERBACK EDITION
mendacity springs eternal

IN 1958, THE YEAR
described in
When Harlem Nearly Killed King
, African American elected officials were virtually unheard of in the South, while barely registering a presence in New York City. Things have certainly changed since then. In 2000 there were 9,040 African American elected officials across the country. In New York City, from 1990 to 1994 there was an African American mayor. Currently, the city has four African Americans representing it in U.S. Congress. The New York City council has numerous African Americans. And as was true in 1958, Manhattan’s borough president (back then, Hulan Jack) is African American (today, C. Virginia Fields). And almost everybody, in some way, shape, or form, invokes the name of the deceased Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who now has his own national
holiday. Rather than losing his life violently as was feared would take place in 1958 in New York City after he was stabbed by a deranged woman, King instead lost it 10 years later in Memphis, Tennessee at the hands of an assassin.

In September 1958, the most prominent African American politician in America was Harlem’s own congressman, also a preacher, Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr. In two years, Powell would become chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. In 1958, when King appeared in Harlem to promote his new book,
Stride Toward Freedom
, describing the Montgomery Bus Boycott that successfully desegregated buses in that city, Powell found a reason to stay away from his own constituency. This was probably due to his ego. The rise of King eclipsed his popularity, as it did that of all other leaders among African Americans.

Today, not only is King’s name often invoked here in New York City by the Harlem-based Reverend Al Sharpton—a controversial man who aspires to be a political kingmaker—Sharpton also invokes the name of Powell. He claims that he views Powell as a role model, even as he runs for president of the United States, an office that, experts agree, Sharpton hasn’t the slightest chance of winning. Which begs the following comparison between Powell and Sharpton. During his heyday, despite all of Powell’s excessive egocentricity, at least he was a pragmatist, running for political offices he could win—first a city council seat from Harlem, then the U.S. House of Representatives. So if Powell is Sharpton’s role model, one might ask, why isn’t Sharpton running for a political office he can win?

All of this is to say that even though conditions for African Americans have improved since 1958, still, numerous African Americans find themselves wedded to the notion of needing the same type of Moses that Martin Luther King Jr. appeared to be in 1958, while he basked in the victory of Montgomery. And Reverend Sharpton seeks to fill that role. Hence, opportunities for his misplaced egotism. The type of racism honestly expressed in 1958 by New York’s governor Averill Harriman only behind closed doors after hearing of King’s stabbing, is still the rule with numerous Caucasian elected officials today: say one thing before the general public, and something else when out of earshot of African Americans.

In other words, things have changed. Yet the mendacity and venality that has always ruled human behavior remains constant.
When Harlem Nearly Killed King
dramatizes such behavior as it played itself out over a few harrowing days in September and October of 1958, even among the surgeons saving King.

Hugh Pearson
New York City
October 2003

ONE
where do we go from here?

EUPHORIA FROM THE
November 13, 1956, Supreme Court decision desegregating buses in Montgomery, Alabama, after a year-long boycott spread across the country. It deluged soon to be twenty-eight-year-old Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., with speaking engagements, requests for advice on how to organize similar boycotts in other Southern cities and towns, and suggestions of new local Jim Crow targets for the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the organization that had spearheaded the boycott. A year earlier, King had been the city’s new Negro pastor, treated by most of the established Negro leaders of Montgomery as gullible enough to take the heat for boldly trying to convince ordinary Negroes who depended on the mass transit system in the small capital city to stay away and instead walk or carpool to work until
their demands were met—a risky proposition that most observers initially predicted would end in disaster. The middle-class and well-to-do Negroes of Montgomery, especially the leaders of the most influential churches (who never rode the buses anyway) concluded that King could afford to take a foolish risk because he was new enough and young enough (thus naïve enough) not to accommodate the city’s Caucasian power structure. He had no relationships that could be jeopardized or doomed.

Then, after pulling off the miracle, due to the gravity of the achievement it became impossible for King to return to a normal life. The boycott soon ended up enlisting the aid of even the initial doubters, who didn’t want to be judged too harshly by posterity. In the aftermath of victory, King would garner the lion’s share of strokes to the ego, as well as the attendant pressures and dangers that came along with becoming an icon. Part of him wanted to return to something resembling a normal life. But now that was impossible.

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