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The new drama ‘Selma’ follows the groundbreaking march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. But it also reveals the man behind the movement. In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his fast-approaching national holiday, check out these remarkable facts about his life and legacy.
- He was born Michael Luther King Jr. But following a trip to Germany, King Sr. changed both his name and his son’s in honor of the German reformer Martin Luther. So, the future Civil Rights Movement leader was called Michael until age six.
- King tried to kill himself at age 12. His adolescence was rough between the sting of racism in Atlanta, Georgia, and the common torments of puberty. The death of his beloved grandmother pushed King into a depression that led him to leap out of a second-story window.
- He skipped two grades in high school. Being prodigiously bright, King skipped his freshman and senior year. This allowed him to enroll at Morehouse College at the tender age of 15!
- King discovered the non–violent protest tactics of Mahatma Gandhi attending the Crozer Theological Seminary. Fellow activist Bayard Rustin would mentor and support King’s growing interest in Gandhi’s philosophies and pacifism.
- Segregation laws kept the newlywed Kings out of a posh hotel on their honeymoon. When Martin Luther King Jr. made Corretta Scott his wife in 1953, they were barred from checking in at “whites only” hotel in Alabama. Instead, they spent the night in a funeral home owned by African-Americans.
- By becoming a pastor, King followed in his father’s footsteps, as well as his father’s father’s footsteps. His grandfather served at the Ebenezer Baptist Church from 1914 to 1931, when Martin Luther King Sr. took over. For his part, Jr. had a parish of his own at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama by 1954. Yet he was co-pastor alongside his father from 1960 until the day he died.
- King was jailed 29 times. The charges were often protest related like civil disobedience.
- In his activism, King traveled more than 6 million miles and delivered more than 2,500 speeches. While he’s most often remembered for his efforts towards achieving racial equality in America, he was also involved in campaigns to fight poverty and urban inequality.
- A housekeeper tried to murder him in 1958. Izola Ware Curry stabbed King in the chest with an ivory-handled letter opener at his Strive Toward Freedom book signing in Harlem. The blade ran alongside his aorta, so even a sneeze before the surgery that removed it could have killed King. Curry was subsequently diagnosed with as a paranoid schizophrenic and committed.
- His “I Have a Dream” speech made him Time Magazine’s Man of the Year in 1963. The 17-minute speech marked a watershed moment in the Civil Rights movement. It is regarded by academics as the greatest speech of the 20th century, and still inspires today.
- In 1964, King became the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. He was 35. The new record holder is 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who survived an assassination attempt and continues to speak out for the rights of children. King is still the youngest male to win the honor.
- He was a Trekkie. But more than a devoted fan of the Star Trek TV show, King actually convinced actress Nichelle Nichols to stay on as Uhura past season one. At an NAACP fundraiser, King introduced himself as her “greatest fan,” and urged her to continue to be a great and visible example of strength and heroism to black youth. He told her, “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.”
- His last words were, “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord‘ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.” As recalled by Jesse Jackson, this was spoken to musician Ben Branch as King went out onto the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennesee, on April 4th, 1968, where he was shot and killed.
- An autopsy revealed that the 39-year-old King had the heart of a 60-year-old. It’s speculated that the severe stress of his political activism and the multiple attempts on his life it spurred was the main cause of such damage.
- Today over 900 streets across America are named in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Forty states boast at least one.
- A Statue of King in choir robes stands outside London’s Westminster Abbey. He is one of ten martyrs immortalized there.
- King is the only honoree of a national American holiday who has never been president. Martin Luther King Jr. Day falls on the third Monday of January. President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983.