Things You Didn’t Know About MLK
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12 Things You Didn't Know About Martin Luther King Jr.

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Things You Didn’t Know About MLK
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Think You Know About MLK? Think Again

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is America's most famous civil rights leader and one of the world's most celebrated thinkers and orators. In the era of Black Lives Matter and following the recent assault on democracy at the Capitol, the federal holiday that celebrates his birth and legacy takes on special meaning. From Selma, Alabama, 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 U.S. history.


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His Birth Name Was Michael
Wikimedia Commons

His Birth Name Was Michael

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 adopted the name Martin Luther later as an homage to the German father of the Protestant Reformation and the Lutheran religion.

Graves Hall, Century Campus, and Benjamin Mays' tomb Morehouse College
Graves Hall, Century Campus, and Benjamin Mays' tomb Morehouse College by Thomson200 (CC BY)

He Got Into College at Just 15 Years Old

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.


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He Became the Leader of the Movement at Just 26 Years Old
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He Became a Civil Rights Leader at Just 26

In 1955, Martin Luther King Jr. was elected to the executive committee of the Montgomery, Alabama, 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.


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He Was the Youngest Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in History
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He Was the Youngest Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

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. Fifty 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.

Recreation of Martin Luther King Jr.'s cell in Birmingham Jail at the National Civil Rights Museum
Recreation of Martin Luther King Jr.'s cell in Birmingham Jail at the National Civil Rights Museum by Adam Jones, Ph.D. (CC BY-SA)

He Was Jailed 30 Times

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."

He Spent His Wedding Night in a Funeral Parlor
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He Spent His Wedding Night in a Funeral Parlor

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.

'I Have a Dream' Was His Second Lincoln Memorial Speech
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'I Have a Dream' Was His Second Lincoln Memorial Speech

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.

He Was Nearly Killed 10 Years Before His Assassination
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He Was Nearly Killed 10 Years Earlier

In 1958, a decade before King's assassination, 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.

Alberta King
Wikimedia Commons

His Mother Was Also Killed by Gunfire

In 1974, Dr. King's mother Alberta King was playing the organ in church when a mentally disturbed African-American man claiming to hate all Christians pulled out a gun and shot her to death along with another member of the choir.

A Second Person Died at the Hotel Where King Was Slain
Sam 'Wags' W./Yelp

A Second Person Died at the Hotel Where King Was Slain

The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, was known throughout the segregated South for welcoming Black guests, and some of the most famous African-Americans in the country stayed there, from Ray Charles to Nat King Cole. 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.


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South Carolina Was the Last State to Recognize His Holiday
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South Carolina Was the Last State to Recognize MLK Day

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.

Roughly 900 American Streets Bear His Name
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Roughly 900 American Streets Bear His Name

Today, around 900 streets in the United States are named for America's greatest civil rights icon. But as a 2016 CNN report points out, many of those streets are in neighborhoods marred by neglect, poverty, and de facto segregation, places where King's dream sadly remains elusive.


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