WSBTV: 29 Facts About Martin Luther King Jr.
He was born Jan. 15, 1929, as Michael King Jr. His father was Michael King Sr. But in the early 1930s, after a trip to Germany, he changed his name to Martin Luther, in honor of the theologian who initiated the Protestant Reformation. His son thus became Martin Luther King Jr. His family members would continue to call him Mike or M.L.
On Sept. 20, 1958, King was in Harlem signing copies of his first book, Stride Toward Freedom. A 42-year-old Georgia native named Izola Ware Curry, walked up to him and asked if he was Martin Luther King Jr., to which he replied yes. “I have been looking for you for five years,” Curry said, before plunging a letter opener into King’s chest. It was never clear why Curry, who was committed to a hospital for the criminally insane, stabbed King. On April 3, 1968, King fully recounted the event in his historic “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech, which included the famous passage: “The X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge on my aorta, the main artery, and once that’s punctured you drown in your own blood. That’s the end of you. It came out in the New York Times the next morning that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died.”
King married Coretta Scott on June 18, 1953. King met Scott during his first year at Boston University. She was a New England Conservatory of Music. Martin Luther King Sr. performed the ceremony in the yard of the Scott home in Perry County, Alabama. After the reception, the new couple spent their honeymoon night in a black funeral home in Marion, Al., because no white hotel would register them. They would have four children — Yolanda, Martin Luther King III, Dexter and Bernice. Coretta Scott King, who carved a significant legacy in her own right, died in 2006. Yolanda King died in 2007.
In 1964, King won the Nobel Peace Prize. At the age of 35, he was the youngest person to ever win the Peace Prize. He remains the youngest man ever honored. He donated the $54,000 prize money — about $400,000 today — to the ongoing civil rights movement.
King is a Grammy winner. He posthumously won in 1971 for Best Spoken Word Album for “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam.” The speech from which the album was made was delivered April 30, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City.
In 1963, following the likes of Charles Lindbergh, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and his spiritual mentor Mahatma Gandhi, King became the first African-American to be named Time magazine’s Man of the Year. Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie was named in 1936. The only other African-American to get the honor was Barack Obama, who was named twice.
King is the only non-president to have a memorial installed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Covering four acres, the memorial opened to the public on Aug. 22, 2011, on the edge of the Tidal Basin, near the Lincoln Memorial.
In the summer of 1944, at the age of 15, King and a group of Morehouse students traveled to Simsbury, Conn. to work on a tobacco farm. The students were paid for their work and were able to spend the summer in the North and in a non-segregated society, which played a significant role in King’s early development. He would later write: “After that summer in Connecticut, it was a bitter feeling going back to segregation. It was hard to understand why I could ride wherever I pleased on the train from New York to Washington and then had to change to a Jim Crow [racially restricted] car at the nation’s capital in order to continue the trip to Atlanta.” He returned in the summer of 1947.
In late March of 1968, King — against the recommendations of most of his staff — went to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. A riot broke out during a rally and King returned to Atlanta. Fearing that he would be associated with violence, King returned to Memphis on April 3. As a thunderstorm raged outside, he delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” speech at Mason Temple. On April 4, at about 6 p.m., while he was getting ready to go to dinner, King stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel and told musician Ben Branch to play his favorite song, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.” A King biographer said those were his last words. At 6:01 p.m., a bullet fired from a flop house across the street, cut King down.
King was arrested more than 30 times for his civil rights activities, including a particularly rough arrest in Birmingham on April 12, 1963. In response to the ongoing protests, a group of white clergy penned a “Call to Unity,” in the local paper. In it, they called King an outsider and agreed that while social injustices existed, the best way to battle racial segregation was through the courts, not in the streets. King responded with his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which he initially started writing in the margins of the newspaper. The letter famously stated: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly… Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.”
According to his biographer Clayborne Carson, King wrote three major books during his life: “Stride toward Freedom,” his first book in 1958, focused on his work in Montgomery. “Why We Can’t Wait,” came out in 1964, followed by “Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community?” in 1968. Between that time he also release two books made up of meditations and sermons. In his lifetime, Carson estimates that King produced or played a role in producing some 300,000 documents about his life in the form of sermons, letters, speeches and even federal surveillance. One of the largest collections of his papers is at Morehouse College and will soon be housed in the upcoming Civil and Human Rights Museum. Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center is the home to 80,000 pages of writings, letters and notes that King donated to the school in 1964. Dozens of biographies have been written about King. Many of the FBI’s surveillance records, written and audio records, concerning King are currently held in the National Archives, but are sealed from public access until 2027.
More of this extraordinary human being’s and gifted soul’s life here