- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a minister and civil rights activist who helped push the United States toward ending segregation.
- Many people know little about his life other than a few lines from his “I have a Dream” speech.
- Martin isn’t his birth name – it’s Michael.
- On top of receiving two Bachelor’s degrees, King went on to earn a doctorate of Philosophy from Boston University in 1955.
Monday marks what would have been Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 91st birthday. Arguably the most influential figure from the Civil Rights movement, MLK Jr. remains revered by people all over the world for pushing the United States toward legally ending segregation in the 1960s.
To this day, much of what people know of Dr. King is limited to his iconic role in the 1963 March on Washington, and the fact that his birthday comes around every January. But beyond his timeless, quotable speeches, there are many fascinating aspects of Dr. King’s life that remain practically unknown to the public. Insider researched and found out 34 interesting facts about the incredible activist, leader, and changemaker that you probably didn’t learn in school.
Martin Luther King Jr. is the only American besides George Washington whose birthday is a national holiday.
Though it took a while for all fifty US states to get on board with honouring a non-president, Martin Luther King Jr. Day finally became an official day off for schools, banks, and federal offices across the US in 1986.
He inspired the largest recorded petition in US history.
Several notable people had the idea to honour Dr. King in the immediate wake of his death. But as mentioned above, not all the states were initially on board. Several congressmen rejected the initial bill to make it a national holiday. But thanks to the efforts of King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and singer Stevie Wonder, this defeat wouldn’t be the end. Stevie even wrote a song about it.
According to USA Today, The two reportedly delivered a massive petition with over 6 million signatures to the White House in support of the holiday, which is to date, the largest official American petition to ever exist.
He was always a natural in front the crowd.
King’s speech giving talents date way back to his teenage years when he won an oratory contest in Georgia at the age of 14 for speaking on a topic titled, “The Negro and the Constitution.”
Notably, King highlighted the contradictory nature of the US constitution in the context of discrimination.
The ‘M’ didn’t always stand for Martin.
This may come as a surprise, but King’s given name at birth was actually Michael, after his father, the Reverend Michael King Senior. The name change happened in 1934 after King Sr. attended an international Baptist conference in Germany, where he became inspired by the teachings of 116th-century religious thinker Martin Luther.
At the time, the younger King was already 5-years-old, so he remained “Mike” to his closest friends and family for the remainder of his life.
His first experience with racism was a very personal one.
Dr. King recounted in his autobiography that his first personal encounter with segregation occurred when his white childhood friend suddenly refused to play with him anymore. This betrayal marked the moment he first became interested in fighting against racism.
He skipped a grade in elementary school because he was more academically advanced than his fellow students.
King enrolled in first grade at age 5, which was apparently too young per the school’s entry requirements. He later returned to re-enroll the following year, but by then was far more academically advanced than his peers and ended up skipping to second grade.
King enrolled in college when he was 15.
As noted previously, King was a very precocious child. This trait lead him to skip not just one, but several grade levels, including his senior year of high school.
Instead of finishing out his 12th-grade year, King enrolled at Morehouse College at age 15, where he completed a Bachelor’s degree in sociology.
One of his first jobs was at a newspaper.
From an early age, King already had an established paper route. His work ethic allowed him to be promoted to assistant manager for The Atlanta Journal delivery station at age 13.
He was somewhat of a sceptic.
Although he would later become known as the Reverend MLK, in 1942, teenaged Martin Luther King Jr. had a very different view of religion. In his autobiography, he wrote that he wasn’t afraid to openly question everything he had been taught, even when it got him into trouble. King said, “At the age of 13, I shocked my Sunday school class by denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Doubts began to spring forth unrelentingly.”
Yet he still became an ordained minister before finishing college.
King initially believed pursuing a career in medicine or law was a better choice than following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a minister.
But according to Morehouse College, after King took a class with Dr. George D. Kelsey, the director of the school of Religion, he had a change of heart. This was because Dr. Kelsey challenged King to expand upon his previous knowledge about his faith in an academic context. King ultimately decided to enter the ministry and was fully ordained in 1948 at age 19.
He earned his PhD in systematic theology.
If you’re wondering why he’s known as Doctor Martin Luther King Jr., it’s because on top of receiving two Bachelor’s degrees (one in sociology from Morehouse College and the other in divinity from The Crozer Theological Seminary) King went on to earn a doctorate of Philosophy from Boston University in 1955.
This is all in addition to the 18 honorary degrees he later received.
As if earning three degrees as a student wasn’t enough, Washington State University reported that Dr. King was awarded honorary doctorates from Howard University, Bard College, Yale, Wesleyan, and many other higher education institutions.
American essayist Henry David Thoreau had a profound impact on his civil rights career.
Throughout most of his life, King was a voracious reader. According to Atlanta Black Star, he enjoyed delving into the works of great philosophers and thinkers like Socrates, Rousseau, and Aristotle.
But of all the great texts that influenced Dr. King, the essay “Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau comes up the most.
According to The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford, King said Thoreau’s belief that an individual should not cooperate with an evil system greatly influenced his worldview. It also inspired his belief in his own ability to enact social change at the individual level.
He met his future wife over a telephone call.
While studying at Boston University, King lamented to friends that he had yet to meet any woman he seriously liked. He then reached out to his friend, Mary Powell, who played matchmaker and suggested he meet Coretta Scott. The couple had their very first interaction over a brief phone conversation, where they agreed to meet in person. At the time, Coretta was studying opera at The New England Conservatory for Music and hoped to be a concert singer. King wrote in his autobiography, “She was a mezzo-soprano and I’m sure she would have gone on into this area if a Baptist preacher hadn’t interrupted her life.”
He called Boston his second home.
Perhaps it’s because this is where he spent several of his young adult years free from hardlined Jim Crow segregation, and perhaps it’s because this is where he met the woman who would change his life and build a family with him. But the bottom line is Martin Luther King Jr. reportedly referred to Boston as his second home (only behind Atlanta, his first) and returned to the New England city several times throughout his life.
King and his wife had an unusual honeymoon.
King married Coretta Scott on June 18, 1953 in Alabama. After enjoying a beautiful ceremony lead by King’s father, the couple looked for a place to stay the night.
At the time, no hotels in their area welcomed black couples as guests. As a result, the pair spent their first night together in a funeral home.
He did not expect to become a civil rights leader.
According to the New Yorker, the King family had recently moved to Montgomery, Alabama, when the famous 1956 bus boycott – a citywide protest against racialized segregation on public transit – began. At the time, King was only 26 and pretty much unknown in activist spaces, though he had previously expressed interest in social justice. In fact at first, King opposed the boycott, because he worried that it was unethical to put people’s jobs at risk. But when he finally realised the ultimate goal behind the protest, he volunteered to use his church’s basement as a meeting spot for boycott organisers. During their first meeting, the group surprisingly elected King as their president because no one else stood up to take the role.
He then wrote his very first public, political speech in under 20 minutes.
His house was bombed.
As soon as King became a spokesperson for civil rights, white supremacists and other hate groups began targeting him. In January of 1956, militant segregationists attempted to destroy King and his family by bombing his house while his wife and child were home. The bomb reportedly destroyed a portion of the front porch, but thankfully didn’t injure anyone.
He was valedictorian of his class at Crozer Theological Seminary.
Given his rich interest in academia, it makes sense that King graduated at the top of his class. This accomplishment proved to be a boon for his future, because it awarded him a fellowship that covered part of his graduate study expenses.
He authored a total of five books.
His collected works include “Stride Toward Freedom” and “Why We Can’t Wait,” which document the rise of civil rights movements and their struggles. In addition, he published a book of his sixteen favourite sermons.
He spoke at over 2,500 events.
During his short, 12 year career in the public eye, King delivered an astounding number of public speeches. It’s estimated that between his weekly sermons at church and media appearances, he spoke an average of 450 times per year, according to CNN. And while the famed “I Have a Dream” speech will always hold a special place in history, it wasn’t the only memorable address he delivered during his life.
Some people believe his very last speech foreshadowed his death.
The day before Martin Luther King, Jr. passed away, he gave a speech in Memphis, Tennessee, to offer support for sanitation workers who had received unfair treatment by their bosses.
The goal of this address was to push for union representation, safer work conditions, and living wages. But King was known to incorporate religious elements into his speeches, and this was no different.
He told the crowd, “And 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.”
In the aftermath of his death, some people found the language he used to be an eerie indication that he knew his death was imminent.
He won a Grammy award.
Speaking of speeches, it’s worth noting that one of King’s most controversial addresses actually received a ton of praise. The speech, bluntly titled “Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam,” was recorded on vinyl and earned King a Grammy nod for Best Spoken Word Album.
He almost died years before his assassination.
According to The Atlanta Journal Constitution, in 1958, a mysterious woman approached King at a book signing event in New York City. She then stabbed him with a letter opener, which resulted in King sustaining a life-threatening injury close to his heart. He survived the attack because he received prompt emergency medical care.
His imprisonment helped JFK get elected.
In October 1960, King was jailed for participating in a sit-in protest at a Georgia department store.
At the time, Senator John F. Kennedy ( JFK ) was running against Richard Nixon for the US presidency. According to Time magazine, although Kennedy was registered Democrat, his views on civil rights and racial justice had been pretty unclear.
But upon learning of King’s unjust treatment by the police department, a key advisor told Kennedy that his response to the situation would determine his voter turnout in the election. As a result, Kennedy called Coretta Scott King and offered his support. Because of this phone call, many black Americans finally believed JFK was committed to the fight for equality. They turned out in record numbers and are credited with JFK’s historic victory.
Someone else died the day of his assassination.
According to The New York Times, one of the staff members who worked at the hotel where King was assassinated died shortly after he did.It turns out she was traumatized by the sight and sound of Dr. King’s murder, which caused her to suffer from a stress-induced heart attack.
His political position became more radical over time.
By the time the 1960s rolled around, the scope of King’s activist work went far beyond civil rights and into economic justice. He increasingly used his platform to advocate for causes like universal basic income and healthcare.
But he also vocalized his strong opposition to the Vietnam war, which caused him to lose a significant amount of American approval, according to Jenn M. Jackson of Teen Vogue.
The most memorable part of his “I Have a Dream” speech was unplanned.
During the 1963 March on Washington, King delivered a monumental speech that had been well-prepared by his speechwriter, Clarence Jones. But the more he spoke in front of that 250,000 person crowd, the more impassioned he grew. This lead him to go off course toward the end of the speech and speak directly from his heart.
Since King was used to leading Sunday sermons, it was natural for him to move into talking about the future with the same hopeful spirit he had as a minister. This means those famous, poetic lines that nearly everyone can quote (“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed…”) were totally improvised, according to PBS.
He travelled several times to visit countries such as India, Ghana, and England.
According to History.com, once King became president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he began travelling all over the world to deliver speeches about the importance of fighting for racial equality. Some of his notable trips included his visit to Ghana where he celebrated the country’s independence, his overnight stint in the UK where he accepted an honorary degree from Newcastle University, and his pilgrimage to India where he met the followers of Mahatma Gandhi.
He is still the youngest man to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1964, King received this honour for his unwavering commitment to civil rights, nonviolence, and helping the US government move toward making discrimination unlawful. He was 35 years old then, which makes him still the youngest male to ever receive this award. (The youngest person to ever receive one would be female activist Malala Yousfazi. )
Upon winning the Nobel Peace Prize, King was granted a prize upwards $US54,000 that poured back into the civil rights movement.
One could say he set a precedent for sit-in protests.
If you recall the Occupy Wall Street Movement in the US from 2011, you may think of it as one-of-a-kind. But this wasn’t the first time a tent city became part of an American protest. Right before Dr. King’s untimely death in 1968, he was already planning an initiative called The Poor People’s Campaign, a wide scale protest that involved camp-ins on The Washington Mall. The hope of the campaign was to call attention to the economic disparity in the country.
He is honoured in more than 1,000 cities all over the world.
There are currently more than 50 statues commemorating Dr. King worldwide, including one in England at Westminster Abbey, and another in Cuba. And that number doesn’t even include the countless schools and 1,000 plus streets named after him worldwide.
He had a deep appreciation for gospel and jazz music.
King’s religious upbringing greatly influenced his love for music. It also helps that his mum was an organist for the church he attended during his childhood.
But from the time he was a young boy, King sang in a gospel choir and believed in the healing power of music, especially hymns. He later went on to call singers like Mahalia Jackson and Nina Simone his favourite artists.
And according to The International Musician, he enjoyed jazz music, too. He even travelled to Berlin and delivered the opening address for the 1964 Jazz Festival.
At the event, King reportedly said, “Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.”
His last words involved a simple request.
According to Martin Luther King Jr. biographer and historian Taylor Branch, King’s final conversation was with a saxophonist named Ben Branch. King had reportedly asked the musician to play his favourite song, the hymn, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” at an event they were both scheduled to attend later that evening.
King would never get to hear Branch’s rendition of the song. Moments after making this request, he was tragically assassinated by a gunshot wound.
- Read more:
- 7 of Martin Luther King Jr.’s family members who have continued his legacy
- Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat 64 years ago – here are 15 surprising facts about her
- 15 iconic moments in the LGBTQ rights movement from the last decade
- 21 of the most important human rights milestones in the last 100 years
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