Black surgeons & Harlem saved the Civil Rights Movement

From left, Herb Boyd, with students from Thurgood Marshall Academy Fatau Thiam and Dalton Rodney at the African Burial Ground honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Photo by Christopher Griffith

Harlem and its teeming professionals received huge kudos on the 84th birthday anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during a tribute session that amplified how in 1958 the New York village furthered the cause to Civil Rights.

According to keynote speaker Herb Boyd who addressed a gathering at the African Burial Ground National Monument, had the medical team at Harlem Hospital failed to successfully treat a wound that punctured Dr. King’s sternum the movement might have screeched to a halt.

Ironically except for a handful of students from the Thurgood Marshall Academy, there were no Harlem residents present to hear the plaudits. The few to attend listened keenly to Boyd who hailed the Black enclave attributed with helping to change the course of history.

Boyd was adamant about his position claiming that skilled surgeons triumphed in closing the stab wound lodged inches away from Dr. King’s aorta.

“And they did not have to remove three ribs as was previously reported,” Boyd added.

The award winning author spoke largely on the topic “The Day Harlem saved Dr. King’s life after a deranged woman plunged a letter opener in his chest.”

He explained how the southern preacher arrived north on a book signing mission to promote “Stride Toward Freedom.”

He explained why the Civil rights advocate chose the 125th St., white-owned Blumstein’s Department Store to sell his book when a prominent Black-operated book store was located nearby.

He said during that period, Black-owned businesses of that sort were generally regarded to be sympathetic to Communist causes and could have tainted his already-questionable character or political association.

A still-silent audience listened as Boyd all-but retraced the moments on Sept. 20, 1958 that led to a near-fatal stabbing of a 29-year-old prophet.

“Is your name Martin Luther King?” Boyd said she asked the celebrated author.

“I am,” Boyd said he responded.

It was then that Izola Ware Curry, a 42-year-old mentally disturbed woman plunged a seven-inch steel letter opener into the upper left side of Dr. King’s chest.

King was rushed to Harlem Hospital where he underwent two-and-a-quarter hours of surgery to repair the wound.

“It was a momentous time for Harlem Hospital because it was a man of Dr. King’s position who was known all over the world for what he was doing. For him to be brought to Harlem Hospital for a dangerous thing like that, where his life was at stake, it was a challenge. Could Harlem Hospital show that it was up to this task? You see, it was a city hospital, and it was looked down upon. It was up to me to show the world that it could be done there,” Dr. Aubre Maynard reportedly stated in 1996.

Doctors operating on the 29-year-old leader reportedly said, “Had Dr. King sneezed or coughed the weapon would have penetrated the aorta. He was just a sneeze away from death”

Boyd displayed video evidence of newspaper accounts, headlines and clippings reporting the incident.

He also clarified the roles executed by each member of the surgical team which comprised Dr. John Cordice. For many years, Maynard received credit for saving King’s life. However, it was Dr. Cordice and Dr. Emil Naclerio who actually performed the surgery.

Reports are that Dr. Cordice reviewed King’s X-rays with fellow surgeon Dr. Emil Naclerio and consulted with Maynard, their chief of surgery.

“He decided it would be better if he assumed a principal role here, in spite of the fact that he did not do the surgery,” Cordice said in an interview last year.

“We were not going to challenge him because actually he was the boss.”

Now age 94 Dr. Cordice is the only surviving surgeon from that team of triumvirate life-savers.

Boyd said Dr. Cordice was prepared to attend the Jan. 15, 2013 King celebration in Manhattan but yielded to family pressure against leaving his home in Hollis, Queens on the gloomy and rainy Tuesday.

Married for 64 years to Marguerite, the former surgeon missed out on hugs, gratitude and cheers from a grateful audience.

Boyd offered consolation to the crowd and presented a snippet from a documentary detailing Harlem’s pivotal role in furthering the cause of equal rights for African-Americans in America.

In the video interview Dr. Cordice recounts his historic contribution to the nation.

King was just emerging as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement in America. He had already led the successful boycott of segregated bus lines in Montgomery, Alabama.

He organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, Georgia.

His ideology of non-violent resistance was growing but had led to his arrest on numerous occasions.

According to Boyd, Curry was a domestic housekeeper.

She apparently developed paranoid delusions about the NAACP, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders.

The demented Black woman was arrested at the scene. It was later revealed that she also carried a loaded gun.

Why she chose to stab the leader rather than fire her weapon could be perceived a blessing.

She reportedly told police at the 28th precinct that the Civil Rights Movement was aligned with the Communist Party. After authorities informed her that she was being charged with felonious assault and possession of firearms, she reportedly replied, “I’m charging him (King) as well as he’s charging me…I’m charging him with being mixed up with the Communists.”

Reportedly, Dr. King was not bitter.

After hearing of Curry’s mental state, he issued a sympathetic statement saying: “I am deeply sorry that a deranged woman should have injured herself in seeking to injure me. I can say, in all sincerity, that I bear no bitterness toward her and I have felt no resentment from the sad moment that the experience occurred. I know that we want her to receive the necessary treatment so that she may become a constructive citizen in an integrated society where a disorganized personality need not become a menace to any man.”

Boyd ended the celebration with a signing of his books “Civil Rights: Yesterday & Today” and “Heroes of America Illustrated Lives: Martin Luther King, Jr.”

He was surprised afterwards when students from Thurgood Marshall Academy presented him with a golden bust in the image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

He said funding is being sought to complete the telling documentary which honors Dr. King, Harlem and the skilled surgeons who saved the life of an American who emerged a Nobel Laureate and is now a national treasure with the first national holiday of every year named in his honor.

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