The United States honors the most prominent figure in its civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr., on Monday. The national holiday was hard won by his family and activists in 1983 and has been marked on the third Monday of January ever since.
He wasn’t actually named Martin
Martin Luther King Jr. was named Michael when he was born in Atlanta on Jan. 15, 1929. His father, Martin Luther King Sr., a pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta was also named Michael. However, in 1934, he took an eye-opening trip to Germany — where in 1517, a monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg castle church, igniting the Protestant Reformation. King Sr., who was an early figure in the American civil rights movement, traveled back to the United States and swiftly changed his and his son’s names, when young Martin was at about 5.
When he was 28, King Jr. officially revised his birth certificate. In 1957, he crossed out the name Michael and replaced it with “Martin Luther, Jr.” in black ink.
He skipped grades in school and went to college at 15
A prodigy, King skipped at least two grades, graduating from Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta before he was admitted to nearby Morehouse College, a historically Black men’s school also attended by his father and grandfather.
“My days in college were very exciting ones. There was a free atmosphere at Morehouse, and it was there I had my first frank discussion on race,” he later wrote in his autobiography.
When King was 19, in 1948, he finished college and enrolled at the Crozer Theological Seminary, where he was ordained as a Baptist minister. He went on to study systematic theology and earn a PhD from Boston University. King was later awarded many honorary degrees from academic institutions across the world.
“Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction,” he wrote in a student newspaper in 1947.
He got a C in public speaking
Later known as a great orator, King once struggled with giving speeches and received a C in public speaking when he was training to become a minister.
Martin Luther King, Jr. received two Cs in public speaking. Actually went from a C+ to a C the next term. Here’s the transcript. Live your dream. pic.twitter.com/mAoFIwaICw— Sarah Elizabeth Lewis (@sarahelizalewis) January 12, 2020
He was a prankster as a child
In his youth, King had a mischievous streak. He tried to scare passersby on the street by putting his mother’s fox furs on a stick and rustling the bushes. He also tried to drive away his piano teacher by getting the stool to collapse and would sometimes destroy his older sister’s doll heads to use as baseballs.
King may have improvised the ‘I have a dream’ line in his speech
One of history’s most consequential speeches was delivered in less than 18 minutes during the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963.
But when King was drafting the speech — which drew on the Bible, the Declaration of Independence and the words of William Shakespeare — he did not include the famous refrain: “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.’”
According to reports, the American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called out during the speech: “Tell them about the dream, Martin,” prompting King to deploy the now historic phrase, which he had used in previous public addresses.
His family paid the medical bills for the birth of actress Julia Roberts
When the Hollywood actress was born 55 years ago in Smyrna, Ga., King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, paid the hospital bills for her parents, Walter and Betty. The story came to light only last year, when Roberts confirmed the fact in an interview with television personality Gayle King (no relation).
“The day you were born, who paid for the hospital bill?” King asked Roberts during HistoryTalks, a September event in D.C. hosted by the History Channel and A&E Networks. “The King family paid for my hospital bill,” Roberts replied. “My parents couldn’t pay for the hospital bill.”
Grateful that #JuliaRoberts shared this story with @GayleKing and that so many people have been awed by it.— Be A King (@BerniceKing) October 31, 2022
I know the story well, but it is moving for me to be reminded of my parents’ generosity and influence.#CorettaScottKing #MLK pic.twitter.com/Hn9yOVxYIL
Roberts explained that her parents owned a theater school in Atlanta called the Actors and Writers Workshop, which they welcomed the King children to attend at a time when racial tensions remained high.
“One day, Coretta Scott King called my mother and asked if her kids could be part of the school, because they were having a hard time finding a place that would accept her kids,” Roberts said. “My mom was like, ‘Sure, come on over.’ And so they just all became friends, and they helped us out of a jam.”
Her revelation sparked surprise on the internet and drew praise, including from King’s youngest child, Bernice King.
Another assassination attempt came a decade before his killing
In 1958, King was autographing books at the Blumstein’s Department Store in Harlem when a well-dressed woman wearing glasses stepped out of the line and shouted: “Is this Martin Luther King?”
King, then 29, looked up from signing copies of his memoir about the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott and answered: “Yes, it is.”
The woman then pulled a letter opener with an ivory handle from her purse and attacked King, plunging a seven-inch blade into the left side of his chest, according to the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.
King was rushed to a hospital for surgery. Doctors later told him that if he had sneezed, the blade, which was lodged near his aorta, could have killed him. The attacker was Izola Ware Curry, the Black daughter of sharecroppers, and King later referred to her as a “demented woman.”
He was shot dead 10 years later on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis in 1968.
His mother was also assassinated
Just six years later, his mother, Alberta Williams King, was also assassinated. She was killed in 1974 while playing the organ at a service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, shot by Marcus Wayne Chenault, a young man from Ohio who claimed he had been aiming for Martin Luther King Sr., who was also at the church.
King often spoke of the positive influence his mother had on his development, calling her “the best mother in the world.”
In addition to the Nobel Peace Prize, he won a Grammy
King won a Grammy music award posthumously in 1971. He won best spoken word recording for a speech entitled “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam,” which he made in New York to condemn the war one year before he was killed.
King was nominated for a Grammy on two previous occasions, in 1969, for his “I Have a Dream” speech, and in 1964, for his “We Shall Overcome” address.