“Insanity” and violence: Thinking about Izola Curry and Martin Luther King


Few recall or know about the first assassination attempt on Martin Luther King’s life. On September 20, 1958, a woman named Izola Curry drove a seven inch letter opener into King’s chest as he was signing copies of Stride Toward Freedom in a Harlem bookstore. King required elaborate surgery and survived the attack, and Izola Curry, a black woman born in Adrian, Georgia, and working as a cook in New York, disappeared from public view.

A public consensus about Izola Curry’s state of mind quickly hardened into a judicial conclusion. She was declared insane. She attacked King, she believed, because he was oppressing her. He had led troubling boycotts against whites, and worse: He was a communist. These same beliefs were commonly held by many whites. Though many bigoted whites no doubt quietly cheered the stabbing, it seemed reasonable to conclude that a black woman sharing white prejudices was insane because she was black. When James Earl Ray, a white man, later succeeded in killing Dr. King, no one was declared insane.

One voice spoke out strongly against the insanity ruling. Dr. Karl Menninger, renowned psychiatrist, lamented that the insanity ruling made the causes of Izola Curry’s violence invisible. The ruling, in effect, “disappeared” her by secreting her away into a mental institution, where she, with many others unlike her, would no longer complicate the lives of those in the mainstream. If Izola Curry heard voices telling her to stab Martin Luther King, these voices were not those of ordinary folk. She was born and raised on planet earth, but she had to be from somewhere else.

Dr. Menninger was of the opinion that she was indeed like many of us––expressing her sense of oppression in racial terms not unlike those resorted to by blacks and whites alike. The oppressed, he believed, tend to take on the characteristics of their oppressors, and the violence Izola Curry did is what any number of individuals not deemed insane predictably do when under unusual stress for reasons they don’t fully understand. To declare her insane denied not only her, but us, a deeper understanding of why violence occurs.

If what Dr. Menninger said is true, not only of Izola Curry but of the many in society who feel alienated, frustrated, resentful, and depressed, we should expect the level of violence in a society to be proportional to the numbers and intensity levels of those who feel oppressed. In a polarizing society such as ours in which people with clashing belief systems attack each other with righteous disrespect, the sense of oppression is likely to be felt on all sides. When we add to the mix millions of guns we should not be surprised at the spontaneity, destructive power, and frequency of widening outbursts of social suicide. People kill people, and guns kill people, especially since killing is easier to do with guns than with, say, clubs or knives. And because it’s easier to kill people with guns, it’s also easier to do more of it when a lot of people are at each others’ throats.

It’s easy to demonize perpetrators of violence after the fact, and to label the worst insane. But this label also demonizes the millions of mentally disabled individuals who never perform violence and are often victimized by it. It also gets us off the hook, separating the violent from our personal responsibility for them and from the world we have been making for ourselves and children. Killers are our children too––born naked and innocent into the world we have made for them. This in basic ways is an ugly world––twisted toward the justification of killing and torture in a nation perpetually at war, profiting from entertainments that glorify violence, terrorizing its own citizenry with unrealistic fears, demoralizing it with cynicism and greed, and failing to provide institutional support for the needy and confused.

This ugly culture is pervasive. It is also ours, and some would call it “insane.” We have bought and paid for it, and as we complain about tax increases we keep paying the terrible costs we inflict on ourselves by producing and purchasing the products that create the ugliness.

We have not yet developed the wisdom and will needed to minimize the influence of the nastiness we continue to purchase and promote. There are other, better, voices too, also ours but too seldom heard. Following Izola Curry’s attempt on his life Martin Luther King issued a public statement lamenting that she might have injured herself in seeking to injure him. “I can say, in all sincerity, that I bear no bitterness toward her,” he wrote. What he wanted for her was to “receive the necessary treatment” so that her “disorganized personality need not become a menace to any man.”