History Lesson: 8 Martin Luther King Jr. Facts

Alison Syrett | January 18, 2016


Remember how exciting Martin Luther King Jr. Day felt as a little kid? It was one of the few times you came to class expecting the same old routine but got something far more riveting than phonics or times tables: Real life stories of a high stakes struggle for what’s right, centered around a character more noble and brave than your favorite superhero.

But now that we’re older, no school doesn’t have to mean no more learning — in fact, it’s exactly here that we’re reminded the Internet has purpose beyond viral videos. Below are eight (and a half) fascinating things about the civil rights leader:

1. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth certificate does not say “Martin Luther.”

Although he and his father were both born with the name first name Michael, King Sr. changed their names to honor Martin Luther, the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation leader, after visiting Luther’s home country of Germany. The year was 1934, and his son was five. [Alternet]

1a. Even after the big switch, his closest family members still called him Mike. [Alternet]

2. He was in college before kids his age could drive.

Finishing high school in just two years, King Jr. was 15 when he enrolled at his dad’s alma mater, Morehouse College. It was there that he ultimately decided to become an ordained Baptist minister — the same career path that not only his father, but grandfather and great-grandfather, followed. [History]

3. He got a C in his public speaking class [Huffington Post]

Then went on to be one of the great public speakers of all time.

Below is Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”

King delivered this speech on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. The following day, King was assassinated. [Wikipedia]

4. Years earlier, he survived a brutal assassination attempt in 1958.

When a mentally ill women named Izola Ware Curry plunged a seven inch letter opener into his chest during a book signing, the tip just barely missed his aorta. Following several tense hours of precise surgery, the doctors said even one tiny sneeze post-attack could have killed him. [History]

5. Throughout his time fighting for civil rights, he was arrested on 29 different occasions.

Although he anticipated many of these instances when entering nonviolent protest, there were a lot of surprise trumped up charges, too — like driving just five miles per hour under the speed limit. [History]

6. He was — and remains — the youngest male to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

When he received the honor at age 35 in 1964, he was the youngest overall. That position has since been filled by Malala Yousafzai (who, at age 17, won in 2014). [Today I Found Out]

7. Though “I Have a Dream” is his most famous speech, “A Time to Break the Silence” is his most controversial.

He spoke out against the Vietnam War during a time when many Americans were still in favor of it. According to CNN, some members of his own staff warned him not to give it and President Lyndon B. Johnson stopped talking to him afterward. He was assassinated one year later to the day he gave this speech. [CNN]

“A Time to Break the Silence, ” April 4, 1967

8. He went off-script during his “I Have A Dream” address.

According to Clarence B. Jones, who co-wrote the famous speech, Martin spontaneously ab libbed his famous monologue when gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, called from near the stage and told him to, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin, tell ’em about the dream!” [Washington Post]

“I Have a Dream,” August 28, 1963

Have a thoughtful MLK day, everyone. See you Tuesday.

Photograph via Corbis/Hulton-Deutsch Collection



  • Elizabeth Tamkin

    Number 3 is extremely inspirational. I wonder if he enjoyed public speaking though? This is off the topic of him specifically, but it’s a wonderful message here: if you do what you love or are passionate about (he was at least passionate about that which he spoke) even though the standards/critics say you’re bad at it, you can still succeed (and even have a day named after you!). Side note: point 1a blew my mind. Weird that it hasn’t really been a point included in movies made about him (that I recall?).

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  • He got a C in public speaking?!?! No way!!

  • 53045

    How many today would still appreciate MLK had they known he was an advocate of personal responsibility and personal accountability? The following was from an article that appeared in (liberal leaning) Harpers Magazine in 1962, written by James Baldwin: “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King”
    (MLK, speaking to a congregation in Montgomery, AL):
    “We know” he told them, “that there are
    many things wrong in the white world. But there
    are many things wrong in the black world, too.
    We can’t keep on blaming the white man. There
    are many things we must do for ourselves.”
    He suggested what some of these were:
    “I know none of you make enough money—
    but save some of it. And there are some things
    we’ve got to face. I know the situation is re-
    sponsible for a lot of it, but do you know that
    Negroes are 10 per cent of the population of St.
    Loius and are responsible for 58 per cent of its
    crimes? We’ve got to face that. And we have to
    do something about our moral standards….”

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