As the cop who saved his life figures it, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would have died long before the “I Have a Dream” speech if the crazed woman who attacked him in a Harlem department store had been armed with an automatic pistol instead of the sharpened letter opener she plunged into his chest.
Retired NYPD lieutenant Phil Romano further figures he himself also might have died on that September day in 1958, along with his partner, Al Howard.
“I wouldn’t be there, Al wouldn’t be here” if the woman had been carrying a gun, Romano was saying Sunday, the eve of a holiday that might never have been.
The 78-year-old Romano adds, “And to think of how many of those weapons are out there.”
Just the letter opener might have changed history if Romano had not stopped a panicked onlooker who was reaching to pull it from King’s chest when the cops ran up. Howard told King not to cough or sneeze or even speak as they lifted him onto a chair and began to carry him out through a back exit.
Romano met King’s gaze, which he remembers as at once piercing and tranquil. The cop sensed what was at the core of this man even in what could have been his very last moments, even as people all around were screaming.
“I saw nothing but peace,” Romano recalls.
At Harlem Hospital, a doctor on call hurried in from a formal affair and, still in his tuxedo, went to work on King. The cops explained to whichever boss asked that they had been right at the end of their tour, Romano’s very first in a radio car, when they heard a report of a disturbance in Blumstein’s department store. They arrived to hear someone shout, “Dr. King’s been stabbed!” They hurried inside to find that an emotionally disturbed woman had attacked him in the midst of a signing for his book Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story.
The doctor reported that the blade had been a hair’s breadth from King’s aorta. The slightest motion would likely have made the wound fatal.
The doctor “said, ‘If you guys didn’t handle it the way you did, he would have died. There’s no doubt in my mind,’” Romano remembers.
King lived to give the “I Have a Dream” speech five years later, in 1963. The assassination by rifle bullets of President John F. Kennedy three months later prompted King to speak of a social sickness that runs as deep as racism.
“By our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim, by allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero is one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing, by allowing all these developments, we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes,” King said.
Five years later, a decade after he was stabbed by the sharpened letter opener, King was himself assassinated with a rifle bullet from which there was no saving him. Romano found himself with fellow cops in the midst of the ensuing riot in Harlem.
“Would you go tell them what the hell you and Al did?” a cop shouted to Romano.
“You have to ask why are these people being killed.”
Romano remained with the police department for a total of 35 years, becoming a sergeant, then a lieutenant. He happened to be driving past the back entrance to Blumstein’s when he heard a recording of King’s great speech come over the car radio. He got out and said a prayer in the place where so much could have ended. He then proceeded on, using the spirit he had seen in King as his continuing guide.
Romano saw his city and his country make actual progress against racism, to where we elected an African-American president. The place where a huge crowd had listened to King speak of his dream was filled with people waving American flags that felt like everyone’s flags on Inauguration Day in 2009 as Barack Obama took the oath of office.
But we have made no real progress at all against that other sickness. A measure of how far we have come in matters of race and how far we have to go regarding gun violence came as our first black president arrived earlier this month in Newtown to comfort the families of the 20 murdered schoolchildren.
Obama ended his first term with the start of a push for meaningful action. He had seemed curiously unmoved by the day-to-day killing of young people in his hometown of Chicago, but the mass slaughter of these youngsters in their school pushed him to where he no longer feared the political consequences of at least trying to do something about guns.
“You have to ask why are these people being killed,” Romano says, sounding no less a true street cop as he continues to channel King. “The main thing is we extend our grasp even though many times you do not succeed.”
Inauguration Day is supposed to be on Jan. 20, unless it falls on a Sunday, as it does this year. That result is that this Inauguration Day coincides with Martin Luther King Day, one observance complementing the other and combining to challenge all of us. King’s dream did not allow for murdered youngsters.
On other Martin Luther King Days, Romano has gone to St. Patrick’s Cathedral to light a candle. He has the flu on this one, and he decided to offer his prayers from home as we honor King and Obama begins his second term.
Maybe our president has learned that he leads us best when he follows what Romano glimpsed in those piercingly tranquil eyes.
“The road to peace is filled many times with thorns and scorn,” Romano says.