12 Things You Didn't Know About Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is America's most famous civil rights leader and one of the world's most celebrated thinkers and orators. As the 50th anniversary of his assassination approaches, the federal holiday that celebrates his birth and legacy takes on special meaning. From Selma, Ala., to Washington, D.C., King's courage and triumphs have been well documented -- but there's also plenty you probably don't know about the greatest icon of justice, freedom, and equality in American history.
Martin Luther King is the most famous name of the civil rights movement -- but he was actually born Michael King Jr. in rural Georgia in 1929. He later adopted the name Martin Luther as an homage to the German father of the Protestant Reformation and the Lutheran religion.
In 1948, just 15 years after his birth, Martin Luther King Jr. won an essay contest with a piece titled "The Negro and the Constitution." That same year, he graduated from Booker T. Washington High School and was admitted to Atlanta's iconic Morehouse College that September.
In 1955, Martin Luther King Jr. was elected to the executive committee of the Montgomery, Ala., NAACP and president of the Montgomery Improvement Association. When Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give her bus seat to a white passenger, King became the de facto leader of the Montgomery bus boycott -- and the modern civil rights movement. He was 26 years old.
Dr. King was nominated for and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. At just 35 years old, he was the youngest Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in history at that time. Then 50 years later in 2014, 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai took that title when she became the youngest laureate since the prize first was awarded in 1901.
Between trumped-up charges and acts of civil disobedience, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed 30 times, including once in 1956 when he was arrested, fingerprinted, and booked for allegedly driving 30 mph in a 25 mph zone. During one of those stints behind bars, he penned his now famous 1963 "Letter From a Birmingham Jail."
Martin Luther King married Coretta Scott in 1953 during a huge ceremony with 350 guests at the Scott family home in Alabama. Alabama represented the heart of the segregated South, and when the newlyweds were denied a room in the local hotels, their friends secured them a spot alone in an acquaintance's funeral parlor. The couple took a second honeymoon in Mexico five years later.
Martin Luther King's most famous and triumphant moment was his soaring "I Have a Dream" speech, which he gave in 1963 to a captive nation in the shadow of the memorial of the Great Emancipator in Washington, D.C. -- but it wasn't his first time speaking at the Lincoln Memorial. In 1957, 25,000 people gathered in the nation's capital for the Prayer Pilgrimage. The final speech of the day was reserved for a young Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1958, a mentally ill African-American woman -- the daughter of Southern sharecroppers -- stabbed King in the chest with a letter opener. He survived, but just barely. In his 1968 "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, which foreshadowed his murder just one day later, King cited the attack -- and the fact that if he "had sneezed" during his long and complicated surgery to remove the blade, he would have died.
In 1974, Dr. King's mother Alberta King was playing the organ in church when a different mentally disturbed African-American -- this time a man claiming to hate all Christians -- pulled out a gun and shot Mrs. King to death along with another member of the choir.
The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., was known throughout the segregated South for welcoming black guests, and from Ray Charles to Nat King Cole, some of the most famous African-Americans in the country stayed there. When King was shot on the balcony in 1968, the rifle blast caused Loree Bailey, the hotel's co-owner, to have a stroke. She died on the day of King's funeral. The hotel later became the National Civil Rights Museum.
Arizona famously lost its chance to host the Super Bowl in 1992 for its refusal to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid holiday, which President Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1983. South Carolina, however, was the last holdout. The state finally recognized the federal holiday statewide in 2000 -- the same year it removed the Confederate flag from the Capitol dome.
Today, around 900 streets in the United States and Puerto Rico are named for America's greatest civil rights icon. As CNN pointed out in a 2016 report, however, many of those streets are often located in neighborhoods that are marred by neglect, poverty, and de facto segregation, places where King's dream sadly still remains elusive.