8 Facts You Probably Didn’t Know About Martin Luther King, Jr.


As we pause to celebrate the life and contribution of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. today, here are a few things you probably didn’t know about Dr. King but are absolutely worth noting:

1. Two “I Have A Dream” speeches:

King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech that he gave on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. was similar to a speech he’d given earlier that month in Detroit, Michigan. The march in Detroit brought about 125,000 marchers for civil rights and up until the march on Washington, was the largest demonstration in history. At the Detroit speech, King first used some of the “I have a dream” language for the first time, almost as if he was testing out the language before the big DC speech. The Wikipedia page has a side by side comparison, so you can see for yourself. The left is the Detroit speech and the right is the DC speech (click to make larger):

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2. King reworked “I Have a Dream” in the lobby of the Willard Hotel

King was so concerned about the march itself that days before the big speech he hadn’t pinned down exactly what he was going to say. Clarence B. Jones and Stanley Levison had worked on an early draft for King, but he didn’t start working through the edits until the day before. The team met in the lobby of the Willard Hotel, where they were staying. Rather than meet upstairs in their rooms, the group decided to work on the speech downstairs in the lobby because it would be harder to wiretap. King was said to have worked on it until 4 am the morning before and reportedly told an aide that he wanted it to sound like President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

3.  King decided to wing it.

Though the speech sat written in front of him, Clarence Jones later said King deviated considerably from the draft “In front of all those people, cameras, and microphones, Martin winged it,” he said. At one point in the speech, King’s friend Mahalia Jackson, a gospel singer, shouted out from the crowd, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin!” It was then that he began to deliver some of what he said in Detroit earlier that month. In the newspapers the next day, most glossed over the “I have a dream” portion of the speech, instead reporting more about the march itself.

4. He freaked out the FBI.

After a full year of outstanding activism including the march on Washington and the “I have a dream” speech, TIME magazine named King their “Person of the Year.” The whole thing really started to freak out the FBI. The head of the FBI’s domestic intelligence division, William Sullivan, penned a memo saying,

Personally, I believe in the light of King’s powerful, demagogic speech… He stands head and shoulders over all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses. … We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.

J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI wrote a memo to his field offices on Oct. 1, 1963, directing “that we at once intensify our coverage of communist influence on the Negro.”

Then-Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy approved the wiretaps on King’s phones and on the phones at the New York and Atlanta offices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The purpose being to investigate any potential communist ties. Amazing fact given the powerful speech that RFK gave on the night King was assassinated.

5. King was a huge advocate for a woman’s right to choose:

As early as 1957, Dr. King was expressing his support for birth control and choice. In a column in Ebony Magazine, a woman wrote in to ask about a predicament she and her husband faced. They had far too many children in a very small apartment and could not afford more. “I have suggested to my husband that we practice birth control, but he says that when God thinks we have enough children, He will put a stop to it,” she wrote.

King called BS on that line of thinking.

I do not think it is correct to argue that birth control is sinful. It is a serious mistake to suppose that it is a religious act to allow nature to have its way in the sex life. The truth is that the natural order is given us, not as an absolute finality, but as something to be guided and controlled. In the case of birth control the real question at issue is that between rational control and resort to chance. Another thing that must be said is that changes in social and economic conditions make smaller families desirable, if not necessary. As you suggest, the limited quarters available in our large cities and the high cost of living preclude such large families as were common a century or so ago. A final consideration is that women must be considered as more than “breeding machines.” It is true that the primary obligation of the woman is that of motherhood, but an intelligent mother wants it to be a responsible motherhood-a motherhood to which she has given her consent, not a motherhood due to impulse and to chance. And this means birth control in some form. All of these factors, seem to me, to make birth control rationally and morally justifiable.

6. He graduated from college at 19.

During the second world war, colleges and universities struggled to have enough students because most were either fighting overseas or working to help the war effort. Thanks to a special wartime program designed to increase enrollment, King was allowed to enter Moorehouse College at the age of 15-years-old. He earned his bachelor’s degree at the age of just 19-years-old with a degree in sociology and as an ordained minister in 1948.

7. MLK loved Star Trek.

It’s true! Actress Nichelle Nichols started an uproar when she was cast to play Lieutenant Uhura in the original television show. It was one of the first times an African American woman was cast in a major television role. She later told NPR in an interview, that she felt as if she wasn’t doing enough to help the civil rights movement. She almost quit the show to join the movement, but it was Dr. King who convinced her to stay.  At an NAACP fundraiser in Beverly Hills she saw King approaching her from across the room. He told her he was her greatest fan.

I think I said something like, Dr. King, I wish I could be out there marching with you. He said, no, no, no. No, you don’t understand. We don’t need you on the – to march. You are marching. You are reflecting what we are fighting for. So, I said to him, thank you so much. And I’m going to miss my co-stars.

And his face got very, very serious. And he said, what are you talking about? And I said, well, I told Gene just yesterday that I’m going to leave the show after the first year because I’ve been offered – and he stopped me and said: You cannot do that. And I was stunned. He said, don’t you understand what this man has achieved? For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen. He says, do you understand that this is the only show that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to stay up and watch. I was speechless.

8. We aren’t the only ones who celebrate MLK Day.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day also is celebrated in Toronto, Canada, and Hiroshima, Japan.

An amazing life and an amazing contribution to our country. Thank you for your service, Dr. King, may your legacy live on in all of us.

Featured image via Wikimedia commons.

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