1. King’s birth name was Michael, not Martin. The civil rights leader was born Michael King Jr. on January 15, 1929. In 1934, however, his father, a pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, traveled to Germany and became inspired by the Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther. As a result, King Sr. changed his own name as well as that of his 5-year-old son.
2. Attempted Suicide
At the age of 12, King’s grandmother died of a heart attack. He blamed himself for her death and even attempted suicide afterwards by jumping out of a second story window.
3. King entered college at the age of 15. King was such a gifted student that he skipped grades nine and 12 before enrolling in 1944 at Morehouse College, the alma mater of his father and maternal grandfather. He was able to enter thanks to a special wartime program intended to boost enrollment by admitting promising high school students. Although he was the son, grandson, and great-grandson of Baptist ministers, King did not intend to follow the family vocation until Morehouse president Benjamin E. Mays, a noted theologian, convinced him otherwise. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in sociology at the age of 19. King was ordained before graduating from college.
4. King received his doctorate in systematic theology. After earning a divinity degree from Pennsylvania’s Crozer Theological Seminary, King attended graduate school at Boston University, where he received his Ph.D. degree in 1955. The title of his dissertation was “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.” In 1991, a BU committee found that King had plagiarized some passages or not properly cited sources. The finding was put in King’s files, but his PhD was still recognized.
5. Spent honeymoon in a funeral parlor
He and new wife Coretta Scott King married in 1953 and spent their first wedding night in a funeral parlor owned by a friend, because honeymoon suites were not available for African Americans in the South (and in most other places across America).
6. King was awarded 20 honorary degrees and was named Man of the Year by Time magazine.
During his lifetime, he received 20 honorary degrees from colleges and universities across the US and around the world. In 1963, he became the first African-American to be named Time magazine’s Man of the Year. The tribute included a photograph on the cover plus a seven-page article including several photos of the most memorable moments of his career – such as meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson and his 1963 arrest in Alabama.
7. “I Have a Dream” improvisation
The final and most famous part of this speech, the part from which it derives its name, was actually a masterful piece of improvisation on behalf of King. He was inspired by the crowd and, in the spirit of a true “preacher,” wove his words into a crescendo of eloquent ideas.
8. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was not his first at the Lincoln Memorial. Six years before his iconic oration at the March on Washington, King was among the civil rights leaders who spoke in the shadow of the Great Emancipator during the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom on May 17, 1957. Before a crowd estimated at between 15,000 and 30,000, King delivered his first national address on the topic of voting rights. His speech, in which he urged America to “give us the ballot,” drew strong reviews and positioned him at the forefront of the civil rights leadership.
9. The civil rights leader was arrested 29 times and assaulted four times.
Although King was admired by many, he was seen as a threat to American security by police officials. He went to jail nearly 30 times, arrested for acts of ‘civil disobedience,’ including the time he was jailed in Montgomery, Alabama in 1956 for driving five miles per hour over the speed limit. Even the FBI had concerns: paper trails show that the agency had continued efforts to thwart King’s progress. After his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech in 1963, the FBI intensified their investigation into King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
10. From 1957 to 1968, King traveled over six million miles and spoke over 2,500 times.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization formed to aid the growing civil rights movement, elected King as its president in 1957; he led the group from its inception until he was murdered in 1968. Founded on Christian values, SCLC sought to advance the cause of the civil rights movement, but in a peaceful way; inspired by the teachings of Gandhi, King operated on Christian principles without violence. He traveled across the nation, visiting cities for speeches and protests. During these 11 years, King also wrote five books and published several important essays and articles.
11. Favored partial reparations
Although he didn’t advocate full reparations for slavery he did believe that even if they were given equality, black Americans would still be at a disadvantage economically. He therefore petitioned the government to apportion $50 billion to create economic equality as well. While King’s plan never materialized, the beginnings of affirmative action and equal opportunity programs find their roots in his proposal.
12. King narrowly escaped an assassination attempt a decade before his death. On September 20, 1958, King was in Harlem signing copies of his new book, “Stride Toward Freedom,” in Blumstein’s department store when he was approached by Izola Ware Curry. The woman asked if he was Martin Luther King Jr. After he said yes, Curry said, “I’ve been looking for you for five years,” and she plunged a seven-inch letter opener into his chest. The tip of the blade came to rest alongside his aorta, and King underwent hours of delicate emergency surgery. Surgeons later told King that just one sneeze could have punctured the aorta and killed him. From his hospital bed where he convalesced for weeks, King issued a statement affirming his nonviolent principles and saying he felt no ill will toward his mentally ill attacker. Izola Curry was found legally insance and lived out her life in a number of psychiatric institutions, dying of natural causes in 2015 at the age of 98.
13. He was the youngest person at the time to receive a Nobel Peace Prize.
When Martin Luther King Jr. received a Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolence, he was just 35 years old – the youngest man at the time to do so. His prize included a check for $54,123, which he donated to various organizations – the American Foundation on Non-Violence, Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), NAACP, National Council of Negro Women, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNNC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) – to aid in the progress of the civil rights movement.
14. FBI tapped him
Partly as a result of his friendship with Stanley Levinson, a New York attorney who had ties to the Communist Party USA, the FBI monitored him heavily. In fact, after his “I Have a Dream” speech he was declared “the most dangerous and effective negro leader in the country.” In spite of rumors there is no evidence he had Communist ties. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the late 70’s, however, that the FBI admitted to not finding any evidence to incriminate him.
15. Advocated against Vietnam War
Although he is most famously remembered for his work towards racial equality, he also gave several speeches condemning the Vietnam War shortly before his death.
16. He was a Trekkie.
OK, he probably didn't own any Spock ears, but he was enough of a fan of the original "Star Trek" show to persuade actress Nichelle Nichols (who played Uhura) to stay on when she thought of leaving after the first season.
17. King’s last public speech foretold his death. King had come to Memphis in April 1968 to support the strike of the city’s black garbage workers, and in a speech on the night before his assassination, he told an audience at Mason Temple Church: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now … I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
18. Members of King’s family did not believe James Earl Ray acted alone. Ray, a career criminal, pled guilty to King’s assassination but later recanted. King’s son Dexter met publicly with Ray in 1997 and argued for the case to be reopened. King’s widow, Coretta, believed the Mafia and local, state and federal government agencies were deeply involved in the murder. She praised the result of a 1999 civil trial in which a Memphis jury decided the assassination was the result of a conspiracy and that Ray was set up to take the blame. A U.S. Department of Justice investigation released in 2000 reported no evidence of a conspiracy.
19. King’s mother was also slain by a bullet. On June 30, 1974, as 69-year-old Alberta Williams King played the organ at a Sunday service inside Ebenezer Baptist Church, Marcus Wayne Chenault Jr. rose from the front pew, drew two pistols and began to fire shots. One of the bullets struck and killed King, who died steps from where her son had preached nonviolence. The deranged gunman said that Christians were his enemy and that although he had received divine instructions to kill King’s father, who was in the congregation, he killed King’s mother instead because she was closer. The shooting also left a church deacon dead. Chenault received a death penalty sentence that was later changed to life imprisonment, in part due to the King family’s opposition to capital punishment.
20. King is the only non-president to have a national holiday in his name.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill that would establish a nationally observed holiday in remembrance of King. He is the only non-president to have received such an honor – the only other American to have a holiday commemorated in his name is George Washington. The holiday was first celebrated in 1986 on the third Monday in January, close to MLK’s birthday on January 15th. Despite being enacted in 1983, all fifty states didn’t observe MLK day until 17 years later.
21. Washington Mall Memorial
He is also the only non-president with a memorial, located on the National Mall in Washington, DC.
22. MLK Day in other countries
There are two places outside of the United States that celebrate MLK day: Toronto, Canada and Hiroshima, Japan.
23. There are approximately 900 streets named after MLK in the US.
According to Derek Alderman, head of the geography department at the University of Tennessee, there are approximately 900 streets named after King in the US. After his assassination in 1968, cities across the nation began naming and renaming streets in his honor; even countries such as Italy and Israel followed suit. The number of streets increases every year, with 70 percent in Southern states: Alabama, Texas, Florida, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, and North Carolina. Of course, we have a street right here in Northeast Portland named after him.
24. Won posthumous Grammy and Medal of Freedom
His speech Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam went on to win him a posthumous Grammy and he has also been awarded the Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honors an American civilian can receive.
MLK: THE THREE EVILS OF SOCIETY: (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1967 speech at the National Conference on New Politics in Chicago. Here, he speaks about what he calls the Triple Evils: War, Racism and Poverty.): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8d-IYSM-08
Born as Michael King Jr. on January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King Jr. was the middle child of Michael King Sr. and Alberta Williams King. The King and Williams families were rooted in rural Georgia. Martin Jr.'s grandfather, A.D. Williams, was a rural minister for years and then moved to Atlanta in 1893. He took over the small, struggling Ebenezer Baptist church with around 13 members and made it into a forceful congregation. He married Jennie Celeste Parks and they had one child that survived, Alberta. Michael King Sr. came from a sharecropper family in a poor farming community. He married Alberta in 1926 after an eight-year courtship. The newlyweds moved to A.D. Williams' home in Atlanta.
Michael King Sr. stepped in as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church upon the death of his father-in-law in 1931. He too became a successful minister, and adopted the name Martin Luther King Sr. in honor of the German Protestant religious leader Martin Luther. In due time, Michael Jr. would follow his father's lead and adopt the name himself.
Young Martin had an older sister, Willie Christine, and a younger brother, Alfred Daniel Williams King. The King children grew up in a secure and loving environment. Martin Sr. was more the disciplinarian, while his wife's gentleness easily balanced out the father's stricter hand. Though they undoubtedly tried, Martin Jr.’s parents couldn’t shield him completely from racism. Martin Luther King Sr. fought against racial prejudice, not just because his race suffered, but because he considered racism and segregation to be an affront to God's will. He strongly discouraged any sense of class superiority in his children which left a lasting impression on Martin Jr.
Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, Martin Luther King Jr. entered public school at age 5. In May, 1936 he was baptized, but the event made little impression on him. In May, 1941, Martin was 12 years old when is grandmother, Jennie, died of a heart attack. The event was traumatic for Martin, more so because he was out watching a parade against his parents' wishes when she died. Distraught at the news, young Martin jumped from a second story window at the family home, allegedly attempting suicide.
King attended Booker T. Washington High School, where he was said to be a precocious student. He skipped both the ninth and eleventh grades, and entered Morehouse College in Atlanta at age 15, in 1944. He was a popular student, especially with his female classmates, but an unmotivated student who floated though his first two years. Although his family was deeply involved in the church and worship, young Martin questioned religion in general and felt uncomfortable with overly emotional displays of religious worship. This discomfort continued through much of his adolescence, initially leading him to decide against entering the ministry, much to his father's dismay. But in his junior year, Martin took a Bible class, renewed his faith and began to envision a career in the ministry. In the fall of his senior year, he told his father of his decision.
Education and Spiritual Growth
In 1948, Martin Luther King Jr. earned a sociology degree from Morehouse College and attended the liberal Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. He thrived in all his studies, and was valedictorian of his class in 1951, and elected student body president. He also earned a fellowship for graduate study. But Martin also rebelled against his father’s more conservative influence by drinking beer and playing pool while at college. He became involved with a white woman and went through a difficult time before he could break off the affair.
During his last year in seminary, Martin Luther King Jr. came under the guidance of Morehouse College President Benjamin E. Mays who influenced King’s spiritual development. Mays was an outspoken advocate for racial equality and encouraged King to view Christianity as a potential force for social change. After being accepted at several colleges for his doctoral study, including Yale and Edinburgh in Scotland, King enrolled at Boston University.
While working on his doctorate, Martin Luther King Jr. met Coretta Scott, an aspiring singer and musician, at the New England Conservatory school in Boston. They were married in June 1953 and had four children, Yolanda, Martin Luther King III, Dexter Scott and Bernice. In 1954, while still working on his dissertation, King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church of Montgomery, Alabama. He completed his Ph.D. and earned his degree in 1955. King was only 25 years old.
Montgomery Bus Boycott
On March 2, 1955, a 15-year-old girl refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery city bus in violation of local law. Claudette Colvin was arrested and taken to jail. At first, the local chapter of the NAACP felt they had an excellent test case to challenge Montgomery's segregated bus policy. But then it was revealed that she was pregnant and civil rights leaders feared this would scandalize the deeply religious black community and make Colvin (and, thus the group's efforts) less credible in the eyes of sympathetic whites.
On December 1, 1955, they got another chance to make their case. That evening, 42-year-old Rosa Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus to go home after an exhausting day at work. She sat in the first row of the "colored" section in the middle of the bus. As the bus traveled its route, all the seats in the white section filled up, then several more white passengers boarded the bus. The bus driver noted that there were several white men standing and demanded that Parks and several other African Americans give up their seats. Three other African American passengers reluctantly gave up their places, but Parks remained seated. The driver asked her again to give up her seat and again she refused. Parks was arrested and booked for violating the Montgomery City Code. At her trial a week later, in a 30-minute hearing, Parks was found guilty and fined $10 and assessed $4 court fee.
On the night that Rosa Parks was arrested, E.D. Nixon, head of the local NAACP chapter met with Martin Luther King Jr. and other local civil rights leaders to plan a citywide bus boycott. King was elected to lead the boycott because he was young, well-trained with solid family connections and had professional standing. But he was also new to the community and had few enemies, so it was felt he would have strong credibility with the black community.
In his first speech as the group's president, King declared, "We have no alternative but to protest. For many years we have shown an amazing patience. We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated. But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice."
Martin Luther King Jr.'s skillful rhetoric put a new energy into the civil rights struggle in Alabama. The bus boycott involved 382 days of walking to work, harassment, violence and intimidation for the Montgomery's African-American community. Both King's and E.D. Nixon's homes were attacked. But the African-American community also took legal action against the city ordinance arguing that it was unconstitutional based on the Supreme Court's "separate is never equal" decision in Brown v. Board of Education. After being defeated in several lower court rulings and suffering large financial losses, the city of Montgomery lifted the law mandating segregated public transportation.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference
Flush with victory, African-American civil rights leaders recognized the need for a national organization to help coordinate their efforts. In January 1957, Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and 60 ministers and civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to harness the moral authority and organizing power of black churches. They would help conduct non-violent protests to promote civil rights reform. King's participation in the organization gave him a base of operation throughout the South, as well as a national platform. The organization felt the best place to start to give African Americans a voice was to enfranchise them in the voting process. In February 1958, the SCLC sponsored more than 20 mass meetings in key southern cities to register black voters in the South. King met with religious and civil rights leaders and lectured all over the country on race-related issues.
In 1959, with the help of the American Friends Service Committee, and inspired by Gandhi's success with non-violent activism, Martin Luther King visited Gandhi's birthplace in India. The trip affected him in a deeply profound way, increasing his commitment to America's civil rights struggle. African-American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who had studied Gandhi's teachings, became one of King's associates and counseled him to dedicate himself to the principles of non-violence. Rustin served as King's mentor and advisor throughout his early activism and was the main organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. But Rustin was also a controversial figure at the time, being a homosexual with alleged ties to the Communist Party, USA. Though his counsel was invaluable to King, many of his other supporters urged him to distance himself from Rustin.
In February 1960, a group of African-American students began what became known as the "sit-in" movement in Greensboro, North Carolina. The students would sit at racially segregated lunch counters in the city's stores. When asked to leave or sit in the colored section, they just remained seated, subjecting themselves to verbal and sometimes physical abuse. The movement quickly gained traction in several other cities. In April 1960, the SCLC held a conference at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina with local sit-in leaders. Martin Luther King Jr. encouraged students to continue to use nonviolent methods during their protests. Out of this meeting, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee formed and for a time, worked closely with the SCLC. By August of 1960, the sit-ins had been successful in ending segregation at lunch counters in 27 southern cities.
By 1960, Martin Luther King Jr. was gaining national notoriety. He returned to Atlanta to become co-pastor with his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church, but also continued his civil rights efforts. On October 19, 1960, King and 75 students entered a local department store and requested lunch-counter service but were denied. When they refused to leave the counter area, King and 36 others were arrested. Realizing the incident would hurt the city's reputation, Atlanta's mayor negotiated a truce and charges were eventually dropped. But soon after, King was imprisoned for violating his probation on a traffic conviction. The news of his imprisonment entered the 1960 presidential campaign, when candidate John F. Kennedy made a phone call to Coretta Scott King. Kennedy expressed his concern for King's harsh treatment for the traffic ticket and political pressure was quickly set in motion. King was soon released.
'I Have a Dream'
In the spring of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. organized a demonstration in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. Entire families attended. City police turned dogs and fire hoses on demonstrators. Martin Luther King was jailed along with large numbers of his supporters, but the event drew nationwide attention. However, King was personally criticized by black and white clergy alike for taking risks and endangering the children who attended the demonstration. From the jail in Birmingham, King eloquently spelled out his theory of non-violence: "Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community, which has constantly refused to negotiate, is forced to confront the issue."
By the end of the Birmingham campaign, Martin Luther King Jr. and his supporters were making plans for a massive demonstration on the nation's capital composed of multiple organizations, all asking for peaceful change. On August 28, 1963, the historic March on Washington drew more than 200,000 people in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. It was here that King made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, emphasizing his belief that someday all men could be brothers.
The rising tide of civil rights agitation produced a strong effect on public opinion. Many people in cities not experiencing racial tension began to question the nation's Jim Crow laws and the near century second class treatment of African-American citizens. This resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 authorizing the federal government to enforce desegregation of public accommodations and outlawing discrimination in publicly owned facilities. This also led to Martin Luther King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
King's struggle continued throughout the 1960s. Often, it seemed as though the pattern of progress was two steps forward and one step back. On March 7, 1965, a civil rights march, planned from Selma to Alabama's capital in Montgomery, turned violent as police with nightsticks and tear gas met the demonstrators as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. King was not in the march, however the attack was televised showing horrifying images of marchers being bloodied and severely injured. Seventeen demonstrators were hospitalized in a day that would be called "Bloody Sunday." A second march was cancelled due to a restraining order to prevent the march from taking place. A third march was planned and this time King made sure he was part of it. Not wanting to alienate southern judges by violating the restraining order, a different approach was taken.
On March 9, 1965, a procession of 2,500 marchers, both black and white, set out once again to cross the Pettus Bridge and confronted barricades and state troopers. Instead of forcing a confrontation, King led his followers to kneel in prayer and they then turned back. Alabama governor George Wallace continued to try to prevent another march, however, President Lyndon Johnson pledged his support and ordered U.S. Army troops and the Alabama National Guard to protect the protestors. On March 21, approximately 2,000 people began a march from Selma to the capitol in Montgomery. On March 25, the number of marchers, which had grown to an estimated 25,000, gathered in front of the state capitol where Dr. King delivered a televised speech. Five months after the historic peaceful protest, President Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
From late 1965 through 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. expanded his civil rights efforts into other larger American cities, including Chicago and Los Angeles. But he met with increasing criticism and public challenges from young black power leaders. King's patient, non-violent approach and appeal to white middle-class citizens alienated many black militants who considered his methods too weak, too late and ineffective. To address this criticism, King began making a link between discrimination and poverty, and he began to speak out against the Vietnam War. He felt that America's involvement in Vietnam was politically untenable and the government's conduct in the war discriminatory to the poor. He sought to broaden his base by forming a multi-race coalition to address economic and unemployment problems of all disadvantaged people.
Assassination and Legacy
By 1968, the years of demonstrations and confrontations were beginning to wear on Martin Luther King Jr. He had grown tired of marches, going to jail, and living under the constant threat of death. He was becoming discouraged at the slow progress of civil rights in America and the increasing criticism from other African-American leaders. Plans were in the works for another march on Washington to revive his movement and bring attention to a widening range of issues. In the spring of 1968, a labor strike by Memphis sanitation workers drew King to one last crusade. On April 3, he gave his final and what proved to be an eerily prophetic speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” in which he told supporters at the Mason Temple in Memphis, "I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land." The next day, while standing on a balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel, Martin Luther King Jr. was struck by a sniper's bullet. The shooter, a malcontent drifter and former convict named James Earl Ray, was eventually apprehended after a two-month, international manhunt. The killing sparked riots and demonstrations in more than 100 cities across the country. In 1969, Ray pleaded guilty to assassinating King and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He died in prison on April 23, 1998.
Martin Luther King Jr.'s life had a seismic impact on race relations in the United States. Years after his death, he is the most widely known African-American leader of his era. His life and work have been honored with a national holiday, schools and public buildings named after him, and a memorial on Independence Mall in Washington, D.C. But his life remains controversial as well. In the 1970s, FBI files, released under the Freedom of Information Act, revealed that he was under government surveillance, and suggested his involvement in adulterous relationships and communist influences. Over the years, extensive archival studies have led to a more balanced and comprehensive assessment of his life, portraying him as a complex figure: flawed, fallible and limited in his control over the mass movements with which he was associated, yet a visionary leader who was deeply committed to achieving social justice through nonviolent means.