8 Things About Martin Luther King Jr. That May Surprise You

Though Dr. King is a historic leader, you may not have known these facts about the iconic trailblazer.

Scholar. Minister. Activist. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. encompassed countless roles that helped change the landscape of America. 

Since 1955, King became one of the most visible spokespersons in the civil rights movement with his sound leadership, becoming the nation’s human pillar of hope as a model of love and grace.

Here’s eight facts you may not have known about the Atlanta-born activist.

Martin Was Not His Original Birth Name

King was born on January 15, 1929, and was initially given the name Michael King Jr., not Martin. King’s father was inspired after traveling to Germany and learning more about 16th-century theologian Martin Luther, a key leader of the Protestant Reformation, a Western Christianity movement that posed religious and political challenge to the Roman Catholic Church. When King Jr. was five-years-old, King Sr. changed both his own name his son’s name from Michael to Martin.

He Skipped Ninth And Twelfth Grade 

His talent and intelligence transcended before his work his social justice. Thanks to his incredible gift, King skipped his freshman year of high school and 12th grade. Without formally graduating from Booker T. Washington High School, King enrolled at Morehouse College in 1944, the alma mater of his father and maternal grandfather at only 15-years-old. According to the Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, while enrolled at Morehouse, King was involved in the student council, glee club, debate team, and minister’s union.

He Received A “C” Grade In Public Speaking

Despite being one of history’s most renowned public speakers, King received average grades, C and C+, during two terms of public speaking courses at Chester, Pennsylvania’s Crozer Theological Seminary from 1948 to 1951. Redeeming himself academically, King was valedictorian with straight A's. He was also elected student body president of a predominantly white senior class.

He Was Jailed Nearly 30 Times

Since 1955, King began fighting for the rights of those marginalized and discriminated against. 

But he was often confronted with opposition from police and those in authority who opposed his views. 

In an effort to silence and halt civil rights progression, King was apprehended and imprisoned nearly 30 times during the 12 years he spent advocating for civil rights. His jail stints included Chicago and Montgomery, Alabama, where he was arrested for driving 30 miles per hour in a 25 miles per hour zone. The History Channel revealed during his eight day imprisonment in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, King penned, "Letter from Birmingham Jail," his historic open letter defending his nonviolent resistance to racism strategy.

He Was Blackmailed And Urged To Commit Suicide

He also battled against intimidation and threats. 

In 1964, King was sent an anonymous letter threatening to disclose information detailing his alleged extramarital affairs to the masses. In order to maintain his privacy, the letter urged King to either commit suicide or stop participating in the civil rights movement, according to the New York Times. King ignored the letter and continued his crusade against social injustice.

His Unlikely Friendship With A Famed Boxer

During his reign, King had forged an unlikely friendship with famed boxer Muhammad Ali. Before Ali, then referred to as Cassius Clay, fought Duke Sabedong in their 1961 10-round bout, King sent Ali a telegram expressing his love and support.

“Your youthful good humor, physical prowess, and flippant charm have made you an idol to many American young people. May God protect you and your opponent in the coming contest.” - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Returning the favor, Ali sent a jailed King a telegram in 1967 after he was jailed for contempt of court for organizing his infamous 1963 protest without a necessary parade permit.

"HOPE THAT YOU ARE COMFORTABLE NOT SUFFERING," Ali wrote in the telegram that has since been obtained by Getty Images. 

Surveillance files from the FBI, who had been following the pair for an undisclosed amount of time, was revealed to the public, outing their secret friendship.

King Enjoyed “Star Trek”

Aside from fighting social injustice, King rarely enjoyed time aside for entertainment. He made an exception for the science-fiction television series, “Star Trek,” according to TIME. Nichelle Nichols, the African American actress who played Nyota Uhura on the groundbreaking TV series and the succeeding motion pictures, revealed how King said how much his family enjoyed the show.

“My family are your greatest fans," Nichols recalled King confessing during a Reddit Ask Me Anything interview. "As a matter of fact, this is the only show on television that my wife, Coretta, and I will allow our little children to watch, to stay up and watch because it's on past their bedtime."

His Famous “I Have A Dream” Speech Almost Didn’t Include That Iconic Phrase

From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, during the March on Washington, King delivered one of history's most iconic speeches, “I Have A Dream,” which turned into a key phrase used throughout generations. But those four words almost did not make it into the speech’s script.

Advice from adviser Wyatt Walker suggested any phrasing about “dreams” should be avoided, saying, “Don’t use the lines about ‘I have a dream.’ It’s trite, it’s cliche. You’ve used it too many times already.”

But King went off-script, improvising on the spot, when he belted those now notorious words.

“I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

His Legacy

Long after his assassination on April 4, 1968, King’s legacy continues to impact the world. 

Former President Barack Obama described the historic icon as a "permanent inspiration," encouraging others "to keep pushing towards justice."

"He started small, rallying others who believed their efforts mattered, pressing on through challenges and doubts to change our world for the better," Obama tweeted in 2018. 

Rep. John Lewis, the last living speaker from King’s 1963 March on Washington, also spoke highly of his late friend while speaking with students from Washington’s Ron Brown College Preparatory High School last year. 

“When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just you have a moral obligation to do something, to say something. Dr. King inspired us to do just that.”

Late Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings cited King as one of his inspirations. Before his passing on October 17, 2019, Cummings honored King’s legacy on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in a series of tweets

“Dr. King engaged in the never-ending work of perfecting our Democracy, and he called upon our nation to offer far more opportunity and hope to all the Americans who – regardless of their racial background– were being disparaged and dismissed by our society,” Cummings wrote. 

“Today, we must carry Dr. King’s vision forward and fight to expand voting rights. And on this day of remembrance and celebration, I urge all my fellow Americans to carry Dr. King’s dream in their hearts and work towards building a more fair, equal, and just society.”

To this day, King single-handedly moved the needle on race relations and equality, advocating for freedom, dignity, and love. 

His high moral compass graced him to stand fiercely against consistent attacks of violence, proving love, unconditionally, and a faith, never fails.

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