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15 Martin Luther King Jr. Facts You Probably Didn’t Know

Think you know everything there is to know about the late, great civil rights leader? These Martin Luther King Jr. facts may surprise you.

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Brush up on your Martin Luther King Jr. facts

You know he had a dream, but what else do you really know about Martin Luther King Jr.? Chances are, you’ve missed some key details about the legendary civil rights leader. Take, for instance, the fact that the eponymous holiday doesn’t always fall on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. (It’s January 17 this year, in case you’re curious.) Celebrate the holiday—and the influential activist who fought for equal rights with peaceful protest—by brushing up on these Martin Luther King Jr. facts. Then get inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. quotes and Martin Luther King Jr. photos.

What did Martin Luther King Jr. believe?

Civil rights activist and Baptist minister Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. believed in equality and rights for African Americans, the economically oppressed, and anyone who suffers injustice. He created social change by leading with nonviolent resistance and teaching his supporters the power of peaceful protest. “True pacifism, or nonviolent resistance,” King wrote, is a “courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love.”

What were Martin Luther King Jr.’s accomplishments?

In 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his tireless efforts in the civil rights movement. And they are plenty. King led the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington, and he also helped enact the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

martin luther king familyEverett/Shutterstock

His first name was Michael

Here’s a Martin Luther King Jr. fact most people are unaware of: His birth certificate reads Michael King, an ode to his father, a former pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. But when Rev. Michael King took a church trip to Germany, he became inspired by Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation. Once he’d returned home, King changed his and his son’s names to Martin Luther. Still, some of Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest relatives continued to call him Mike throughout his life. This January 17, celebrate with these powerful Martin Luther King Day movies.

American civil rights activists (L - R) Al Raby, Mike Lawson, Bernard Lee, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (seated, 1929 - 1968) hold an outdoor press conference at the Cenacle "tent-in" at Warrenville, Illinois, June 23, 1967.Pictorial Parade/Getty Images

He wasn’t “colorblind”

Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter, Bernice, says people often misconstrue the message of her late father’s “I Have a Dream” speech in conversations about race. One line, in particular, is often misinterpreted: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

“People are always saying Dr. King was for a colorblind America,” says Bernice King, “and nothing could be further from the truth. He was basically explaining that, no, there’s a beauty in who I am as a Black person, but I should not be judged by those standards. It’s not that you don’t see my race. You see my race, you acknowledge my race, and you accept everything I bring along with that.”

Dr. Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta Scott King pose for a portrrait in 1964.Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

His wife, Coretta Scott King, founded Martin Luther King Day

After Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, Coretta Scott King, his widow and fellow civil rights activist, made it her mission to ensure her husband’s life and legacy would be properly memorialized year after year. She founded the King Center, which honored the first anniversary of his death with the first-ever Martin Luther King Day in January 1969. Although Saint Louis would establish a citywide observance of MLK Day in 1970, it would take years for the holiday to be recognized on a nationwide scale. That happened in 1986, when President Ronald Reagan signed a bill making Martin Luther King Day a federal holiday—largely due to Coretta’s persistence, a fact his daughter Bernice doesn’t want the world to ever forget. “Without #CorettaScottKing,” she tweeted, “there would be no #MLKDay.”

The civil rights leader Martin Luther King (C) waves to supporters 28 August 1963 on the Mall in Washington DC TOPSHOT/Getty Images

Martin Luther King Day doesn’t actually fall on his birthday

This may be one of the more surprising Martin Luther King Jr. facts. Plenty of people conflate the holiday and his birthday, but while Martin Luther King Day sometimes lands on January 15 (the day King was born), it doesn’t always. Because of a federal law called the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, the holiday falls on the third Monday of January, no matter the date. The act ensures federal employees can celebrate Martin Luther King Day and enjoy a long weekend with their families.

MLKCharles Tasnadi/AP/Shutterstock

He was a doctor—just not the type you might think

You’ve likely read about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in your history books, but you might have misunderstood the “doctor” part of his name. The activist wasn’t a medical doctor—he was a scholar. He earned a bachelor of arts in sociology from Morehouse College and a bachelor of divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary. And in 1955, he graduated with a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University, where he met his wife, Coretta. Need a little education yourself? Here’s a primer on the concept of race, where it came from, and how it has evolved.

Martin Luther King Giving "Dream" SpeechBettmann/Getty Images

“I Have a Dream” was not his first speech

Six years before King gave his timeless “I Have a Dream” speech, he stood before an estimated 25,000 people who had gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom. There, he gave an address on voting rights. The speech would position him as a leading figure in the civil rights movement, setting the stage for the historic “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. Incidentally, that too took place in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. Keep learning about the civil rights movement by finding out why desegregation didn’t put an end to racism in America.

Dr. King At News Conference At Hospital After Surviving Assassination AttemptBettmann/Getty Images

He survived being stabbed in the chest during an assassination attempt

In 1958, a decade before his assassination, Dr. King survived an attempt on his life while he signed copies of his book, Stride Toward Freedom, in Harlem, New York. Posing as an autograph-seeker, a woman named Izola Ware Curry plunged a seven-inch steel letter opener into King’s chest. King was rushed to a nearby hospital for emergency surgery to remove the weapon, which narrowly missed his aorta. Ever the peacekeeper, he would later make a statement reinforcing his nonviolent principles while confiding that he harbored no ill will toward his attacker. For further inspiration, browse these powerful Black History Month quotes.

Muhammed Ali speaking in 1968Charles Steiner/Getty Images

Muhammad Ali was a secret BFF

Famed boxer Muhammad Ali was a disciple of the Nation of Islam, the principles of which centered on Black power and Black separatist beliefs. That ran counter to King’s message of racial equality and unity. Still, the two men struck up a friendship, and Ali even called King his “brother.” (Fun fact: Ali was also born with a different name.) Before one of Ali’s 1961 boxing matches, King sent him a telegram as a quiet show of support. Ali returned the favor when King was imprisoned for organizing a 1967 protest; his message read, “Hope that you are comfortable not suffering.” The clandestine friendship was unearthed by wiretaps and more surveillance conducted on the two men by the FBI.

Martin Luther King With Deputy Sheriff trying to be interviewedBettmann/Getty Images

He was one of the most hated men in America

A civil rights teddy bear, King was not. “Please don’t act like everyone loved my father,” tweeted Bernice King. “He was assassinated. A 1967 poll reflected that he was one of the most hated men in America. Most hated. Many who quote him now and evoke him to deter justice today would likely hate, and may already hate, the authentic King.” Indeed, before King’s untimely death at the age of 39, a Harris poll showed a 75 percent disapproval rating due to both his unpopular anti-Vietnam War stance and his push for economic and racial justice. Here’s why filmmaker Dawn Porter believes Black History Month should last all year long.

Martin Luther King Jr. Receiving Nobel Peace PrizeBettmann/Getty Images

He was the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize

King was just 35 years old when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his nonviolent resistance to racial oppression. He received it after a banner year in which he led the March on Washington, delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech; helped ratify the 24th Amendment, which abolished the poll tax; and helped create the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial discrimination in employment and education. King reportedly donated the prize money, worth $53,123, to the civil rights movement.

martin luther king jrGlasshouse Images/Shutterstock

He wasn’t a natural-born public speaker

Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches sparked movements and transcended generations—you’re probably familiar with some of his powerful quotes about racism—and his audiences listened with rapt attention and erupted in thunderous roars. But, surprisingly, public speaking wasn’t always King’s forte. While he attended seminary school, records show he received a C in public speaking.

MLK civil rights protestEverett/Shutterstock

Combating racism wasn’t his only focus

Wherever and whenever Martin Luther King Jr. saw an injustice, he used his celebrity to shine a light on the matter. He famously sought to end racism, but his hopes for equality didn’t stop there. He highlighted how economic disparities hindered low-income Americans, preventing them from equal opportunities. The Vietnam War was another thorn in King’s side, and he delivered one of his most controversial speeches about the matter. “We were taking the Black young men,” said King, “who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”

Martin Luther King Jnr (1929-1968) and Malcolm X (Malcolm Little - 1925-1965) waiting for a press conference, 26 March 1964. Photographer: Marion S.Trikoskor.UniversalImagesGroup/Getty Images

He and Malcolm X weren’t enemies

Although they had opposing views in the quest for civil rights—King sought peaceful protests, while Malcolm X had a more radical approach—the two civil rights leaders had some things in common, like their shared pride in being Black and their shared disdain for the Vietnam War. They both published books, too.

“Martin had the greatest respect for Malcolm, and he agreed with him in terms of the feeling of racial pride and the fact that Black people should believe in themselves and see themselves as lovable and beautiful,” said Coretta Scott King during a 1988 interview. “I think if the two had lived, I am sure that at some point they would have come closer together and would have been a very strong force in the total struggle for liberation and self-determination of Black people in our society.”

MLKUncredited/AP/Shutterstock

In his downtime, he was known to love a good joke

“He was the comedian of the civil rights movement,” the Rev. Lewis Baldwin, a Martin Luther King Jr. historian, told CNN. King even tried a brief stint of stand-up comedy after graduating from college. His career as a funnyman was ultimately short-lived, but he was known to crack jokes with pals behind the scenes.

Police Chief Arresting Civil Rights Activist, Martin Luther King Jr.Bettmann/Getty Images

He was jailed 29 times

The late congressman and activist Rep. John Lewis called it “good trouble”—the kind necessary to create real change. And King knew it well. Throughout his short life, he was thrown behind bars 29 times for petty offenses like loitering and acts of civil disobedience. “I tell friends and family, colleagues, and especially young people that when you see something that’s not right or fair, you have to do something, you have to speak up, you have to get in the way,” Lewis once said. “Dr. King and others inspired me to get in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. And I think we’re going to have generations for years to come that will be prepared to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble, and lead us to higher heights. It’s a struggle that doesn’t last one day, one week, one month, one year. It is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe many lifetimes.”

Sources:

  • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Why Martin Luther King Jr.’s father changed their names”
  • Today: “Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter explains how people misuse her father’s words”
  • Historic America: “The Decades Long Battle for Martin Luther King Jr. Day”
  • @BerniceKing
  • International Business Times: “Why Isn’t Martin Luther King’s Birthday Honored On His Actual Birthday?”
  • History: “10 Things You May Not Know About Martin Luther King Jr.”
  • Biography: “Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali’s Surprising Secret Friendship”
  • @BerniceKing
  • History: “Martin Luther King, Jr. wins Nobel Peace Prize”
  • History: “Quotes from 7 of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Most Notable Speeches”
  • Washington University: “Interview with Coretta Scott King”
  • Failuresville: “Martin Luther King: Stand Up Comedy Years”
  • Family Search: “5 Facts You May Not Know about Martin Luther King Jr.”
  • Time: “Why Getting into Trouble Is Necessary to Make Change”

Sheena Foster
Sheena Foster is an award-winning journalist who has written and reported for ABC and NBC News affiliates, The Tampa Tribune, The Island Packet, Essence, and, most recently, theGrio, where she covered the racial disparity in Silicon Valley. She's also a proud NYC native, foodie, and avid runner.

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