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11 Facts about Martin Luther King Jr.

Born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1929, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would become the figurehead of the Civil Rights Movement and one of the world’s most iconic social justice activists. Emphasizing the methods of nonviolence and peaceful protest, Dr. King worked for equality for Black Americans, an end to poverty, and justice for all. Here are 11 facts about him:

#1. He didn’t originally plan on being a pastor

Dr. King came from an educated family and was an excellent student. At 15, he began attending Morehouse College, where his father and grandfather had attended. The young Martin did not plan on becoming a pastor like his father, however. He studied medicine and law. His mentor – Morehouse’s president and theologian Dr. Benjamin Mays – changed his mind. After graduation, King went to seminary and earned a Bachelor of Divinity, followed by a doctorate in systematic theology at Boston University.

#2. Gandhi’s teachings had a strong influence on Dr. King

Like Gandhi, Dr. King is famous for his teachings on nonviolence and peaceful protest. He learned about the Indian activist through others, including Mordecai Wyatt Johnson. Johnson was one of the most important religious leaders of the time. In 1950, King heard Johnson speak in Philadelphia about Gandhi. Dr. King was deeply moved and began to learn more about Gandhi. Howard Thurman, one of King’s professors at Boston University, also shared Gandhi’s teachings with King and other students.

#3. Dr. King’s leadership in the Civil Rights Movement began with a bus boycott

In 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested in Alabama for refusing to give her bus seat to a White man. The NAACP and activists quickly sprung to action, calling for a bus boycott. The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), co-founded by 26-year-old Dr. King, organized a boycott that stretched for 13 months. The city pushed back, even penalizing Black taxi drivers for giving rides to bus boycotters. In response, the MIA organized carpools. King received death threats and his home was bombed. In November of 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated busing was unconstitutional. The boycott’s tenacious organizing, nonviolence, and success gave Rosa Parks, King, and the movement international attention.

#4. Dr. King was arrested 30 times

For his activism and resistance against White supremacy, King faced many challenges. According to the King Center, he was arrested 30 times. The King Institute at Stanford has a record of his various arrests and convictions for things like disobeying a police order, speeding, and loitering. He wrote one of his most famous pieces – “Letter From Birmingham Jail” – in 1963 following an arrest during the Birmingham campaign, a series of marches and sit-ins against racism in Alabama. Without paper, he began writing in the margins of a newspaper and on the scraps given to him until his lawyers could give him a real pad of paper. After 8 days, King was released.

#5. Someone tried to kill Dr. King in 1958

King was assassinated in 1968, but ten years earlier, a woman tried to kill him at a book signing. History.com explains the incident. King was 29-years old and autographing copies of Stride Toward Freedom, which described the Montgomery Bus Boycott. A Black woman cut the line and stabbed him in the chest with a seven-inch penknife. King stayed calm while others around him tried to decide what to do. Leave the knife in or take it out? They left it in, which was the right choice because the blade’s tip was terrifyingly close to King’s main artery. He had surgery at the hospital and made a full recovery, saying the experience affirmed his belief in nonviolence. His would-be killer, Izola Curry, was mentally ill. During her interrogation, she claimed King and the NAACP were working with communists and preventing her from keeping a job. She was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and passed away in 2015.

#6. The dream part of “I Have A Dream” almost wasn’t included

Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech is one of the most famous speeches of all time. King had given other speeches where he talked about a dream for his children, but the line never resonated with the audience. For the March on Washington speech, the stakes were high and King wanted the speech to be perfect. His advisors Stanley Levison and Clarence Jones wrote the first draft, and with King’s inner circle, they discussed the rest of the speech. The phrase “I have a dream” was not part of the final product. On the day of the speech, Jones listened carefully and heard the first seven paragraphs read as written. Then, Mahalia Jackson, a gospel singer who had performed earlier, called out, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!” King looked up, moved his written pages out of the way, and started speaking spontaneously. The most memorable and powerful refrain – which would become shorthand for the entire speech – was improvised.

#7. The FBI kept a close, hostile eye on Dr. King

The FBI, run by notorious director J. Edgar Hoover, was not a fan of Martin Luther King Jr. They began investigating him in 1955 due to his leadership in the Montgomery bus boycott. Hoover believed communists were influencing the activist. The organization’s hatred only grew more heated when King criticized the FBI in 1964 and spoke against the Vietnam War in 1967. However, it was in 1963 that the FBI did something deeply disturbing. It was shortly after the “I Have A Dream” speech. Though it didn’t link King to communism, the surveillance on him did reveal extramarital affairs. The Domestic Intelligence Chief sent an unsigned letter to the King’s home, which the New York Times published in full in 2014. The letter called King a “complete fraud” and said King had 34 days to die by suicide or the tapes of his affairs would be released. King and his advisors quickly determined the letter came from the FBI and no tapes were released.

#8. Dr. King named the “three evils” of society – racism, extreme materialism, and militarism

In an address given at the National Conference on New Politics in 1967, Dr. King distilled his views on society’s problems in a powerful speech that still resonates today. The first problem was racism, which he describes as a “corrosive evil that will bring down the curtain on western civilization.” The second is extreme materialism, which he links to poverty. He says America has reached a tipping point and must choose between materialism like cars and big hotels and humanism like children’s education and healthcare. Dr. King said the last evil – militarism – is obvious when we look at Vietnam. This speech, given the year before his death, is an excellent breakdown of Dr. King’s most essential – and radical – beliefs.

#9. Dr. King’s mother was also killed

Many people don’t know much about Dr. King’s mother, but Alberta King played an essential role in his life. As a young adult, she was a member of the NAACP, The Women’s International League for Peace, and the Young Women’s Christian Association. The book The Three Mothers by Anna Malaika Tubbs gets into more detail on Alberta’s impact on her son, as well as the impact of the mothers of Malcolm X and James Baldwin. In June 1974, Alberta was playing the organ for Sunday services when a young Black man came into the church (which was the church where Dr. King pastored) and opened fire, killing Alberta and a church deacon. The killer claimed Black pastors were dangerous to Black people and that he intended to kill the pastor. He was sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to life in prison. The surviving King family opposed capital punishment. Alberta King is buried next to her husband, who passed away in 1984.

#10. Coretta Scott King played an essential role in the Civil Rights Movement and beyond

Coretta Scott King was as impressive and significant to the Civil Rights movement as her husband. After graduating high school as the class valedictorian, she became involved in politics and the NAACP in college. She was an important influence on Dr. King, especially regarding Vietnam. He was initially wary of the criticism he would face coming out against the war, but Scott King addressed an anti-war rally in 1965 and took his place at a rally in Washington, D.C. After King’s death, Scott King continued her activism under the paranoid watch of the FBI. She established the King Center; advocated for LGBTQ+ rights and the end of apartheid; and fought to make King’s birthday a national holiday. She passed away in 2006.

#11. During his life – and shortly after – Dr. King was not popular with White people

During his lifetime, White people did not like Dr. King. This isn’t shocking, but considering how revered and referenced he is today by such a range of people, the force of White people’s dislike not that long ago is striking. In May 1965, King won the Nobel Peace Prize, but in the Gallup poll soon after, 46% of Americans (not exclusively White Americans) had an unfavorable view of him. In 1966, 50% of White Americans said King was hurting the Civil Rights movement. He was much more popular with Black Americans. In 1966, 84% had a favorable view of him. Racism factored heavily into King’s unpopularity with White people, though he also was – as The Root describes – “a thorn in the side of white America” on issues like capitalism, poverty, and the Vietnam War. King’s more universal popularity is partially due to progress, but considering that many of the issues he fought against still exist, it’s more likely that his radical teachings have been watered down and his quotes stripped of their context.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.