15 Things Most People Don’t Know About Martin Luther King Jr.

by Alex Scola Jan 20, 2014
1. He changed his name.

Born Michael King Jr., his father Michael King Sr. changed his own name to Martin Luther King Sr. after traveling to Germany in 1931 and becoming a minister, in reverence to Martin Luther. There is still some controversy over whether King Sr. changed his son’s name, or whether King Jr. changed his own name, as well as whether either name was ever changed legally.

2. He powered through academia.

Martin Luther King Jr. skipped the 9th and 12th grades of high school, entered Morehouse College in 1944 at the age of 15, and had earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology by 19.

3. He got a C in public speaking.

Genius and renowned orator though he may have been, Dr. King actually got a C in his first public speaking course. By the end of his studies, however, he had climbed to class valedictorian, student body president, and had worked up to straight A’s.

4. His most famous words were improvised.

The “I have a dream” portion of Dr. King’s famous speech was, in fact, never written as part of that particular script. King Jr. had written it for a previous speech, and it hadn’t landed as powerfully the first time around. While he was delivering the historic speech on August 28, 1963, singer Mahalia Jackson shouted “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin,” from the audience. Hearing this, King set aside his prepared speech and improvised the rest. That event would lead to the circulation of a memo among members of the FBI that read:

In the light of King’s powerful demagogic speech yesterday he stands heads and shoulders over all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses of Negros. We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.

5. He won a Grammy.

Though Martin Luther King Jr. was an accomplished singer, performing with the Ebenezer Baptist choir at the “Gone with the Wind” premier in Atlanta, his Grammy was awarded posthumously for “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam,” in the category of Best Spoken Word Album.

6. He had the idea for the Occupy movement 45 years before we actually did it.

In what has been called his “last great campaign,” Dr. King sought to bring together the impoverished and underprivileged. Dubbed the “Poor People’s Campaign,” King was championing the essential core tenets of the Occupy movement in 1968. At the time of his death, some 3,000 protesters were living in tented villages around the National Mall in DC, but the campaign lost traction when it lost its figurehead.

7. He picked tobacco as a teen, which changed his life.

At the age of 15, and again at 18, the young and privileged Martin Luther King Jr. harvested tobacco on plantations in Simsbury, Connecticut as a summer job. There he experienced the closest thing to racial equality he had ever seen in his young life, and marveled about being able to eat at any table in any place in Hartford in letters to his father. This served as a strong foundation for the rights Dr. King would later champion.

8. He was the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner.

In 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and was at the time the youngest person ever to receive that recognition. Since then, the prize has been awarded to Tawakkol Karman (age 32, in 2011), though Dr. King remains the youngest male recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He donated the $54,000 prize to the Civil Rights effort.

9. He was the first African American “Man of the Year.”

Now “Person of the Year,” the 1963 issue of Time Magazine featured Dr. King on the cover, hailing him as “Man of the Year,” the first African American man to be recognized as such. The only other African American man to receive the title was Barack Obama, in 2008.

10. He was a huge Trekkie.

Tying his love for civil rights and Star Trek together, Dr. King convinced Nichelle Nichols (who played Uhura on the show) not to leave after the first season, as she had planned. Nichols later revealed that King had urged her to stay because her character broke the norm as an intelligent and equal member of the crew, a departure from the typical black persona on television at that time.

Nichols’ presence on Star Trek is said to have inspired and empowered a young Whoopi Goldberg, as well as astronaut Ronald McNair.

11. He was stabbed.

In 1958, a mentally ill woman named Izola Curry stabbed a seven-inch letter opener into Dr. King’s chest. The blade was on the verge of perforating his aorta; an emergency surgery saved his live. He later forgave his attacker, issuing the statement:

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. (Papers 4:513)

12. He was arrested almost 30 times.

Any activist will tell you that an extensive arrest record comes with the job, and for his many protests Dr. King went to jail 29 times in his 39 years of life.

13. His house was blown up.

During the 385-day Montgomery Bus Boycott (ignited by the protest action of Rosa Parks), Martin Luther King Jr.’s house was bombed in an effort to intimidate him into calling off the protest. Dr. King then held a mass gathering in the ruins, and pled for nonviolence.

14. His birthday was not fully recognized as a national holiday until this century.

Though President Reagan signed it into law in 1983, MLK Day wasn’t fully recognized by all 50 states until the year 2000. The last states to hop on the appreciation bandwagon were Arizona in 1992, New Hampshire in 1999, and finally Utah, in 2000.

15. He is globally revered.

Outside the US, MLK Day is also celebrated in Toronto, Canada, and Hiroshima, Japan, and there are monuments in his honor in Sweden, England, Havana, Australia, Colombia, Kenya, and Jerusalem. The statue of him in Westminster Abbey is one of ten 20th-century world martyrs immortalized there.

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