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20 Facts About Martin Luther King Jr.

U.K.-born Paul has worked as a librarian and bookseller since graduating from university. He now works as a freelance writer in Florida.

Read on for 20 essential facts about Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an advocate of non-violent activism. He was also an exceptional orator, and  he made many memorable speeches, including his "I Have a Dream" speech.

Read on for 20 essential facts about Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an advocate of non-violent activism. He was also an exceptional orator, and he made many memorable speeches, including his "I Have a Dream" speech.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (also known as M.L.K. for short) is regarded as one of the greatest American leaders of all time. His impact on the USA and wider world is still felt long after his assassination in 1968.

Even though he was a great orator, civil rights advocate, and leader, King's most well-known achievement was transforming civil rights in America by using nonviolent methods of activism. Read on for twenty facts about Dr. King.

20 Facts About Martin Luther King Jr.

  1. Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia.
  2. King’s father was a Baptist minister and his mother was a school teacher.
  3. He is best known in the USA and internationally for his part in advancing the civil rights movement by using nonviolent methods of protest.
  4. King was a highly educated man with bachelor's degrees in sociology and divinity, and a Ph.D. in systematic theology.
  5. While studying for his Ph.D. at Boston University, MLK was mentored by theologian and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman, who was a big influence on him.
  6. He met and married Coretta Scott, a music student and aspiring singer, in 1953. The couple had four children, Yolanda, Martin Luther King III, Dexter Scott, and Bernice.
  7. In 1955 Martin Luther King Jr. led a boycott of buses in Montgomery, Alabama after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man. The Montgomery Bus Boycott went on for 381 days, but eventually led to the abolishment of racial segregation on public buses in Alabama.
  8. In May, 1957, King gave his famous "Give Us the Ballot" speech during the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington.
  9. King’s most famous speech is his "I Have a Dream" speech. He performed it in 1963 in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. to a crowd of over a quarter of a million people.
  10. Although King was a great man, he certainly was not a saint. Numerous accusations of extramarital affairs and womanizing were made against him, and he admitted in private that he had weaknesses in that area of his life. Also, during the 1980s, an investigation discovered that parts of King’s Ph.D. dissertation had been plagiarized.
  11. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his role in opposing racial segregation and discrimination through nonviolent protest and other means.
  12. On March 7, 1965, King was involved with organizing a march from Selma to Montgomery to protest the murder of a protester who was killed by an Alabama state trooper during the previous month. The march was blocked by state troopers and police officers who brutally beat the participants. The event, which came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” was broadcast on news stations across the USA, and it fostered sympathy for the civil rights movement.
  13. His last great speech is known as the "I've Been to the Mountain Top" address, and it was delivered the day before he died on April 3, 1968.
  14. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. He was shot by James Earl Ray.
  15. Some people have alleged that King’s murder was part of a larger conspiracy and that Ray was just a scapegoat.
  16. King’s favorite song was "Take My hand, Precious Lord." The song was sung at his funeral by his friend, Mahalia Jackson.
  17. Towards the end of his life, King had switched his focus from civil rights to campaigns to end poverty and stop the Vietnam War. Many of his liberal allies felt alienated by his stance on the war.
  18. The Lorraine Motel, where he was killed, is now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum.
  19. After his death, King was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.
  20. In 1983 a new U.S. federal holiday dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. was signed into law by Ronald Reagan. The holiday was first observed three years later in 1986. At first, some states were reluctant to adopt the new holiday, but since the year 2000, all 50 states have celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
MLK making his famous "I have a dream" speech.  The speech took place in 1963 and was delivered to a quarter of a million people in Washington DC.

MLK making his famous "I have a dream" speech. The speech took place in 1963 and was delivered to a quarter of a million people in Washington DC.

10 Quotes From Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

  1. "We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools."
  2. "Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable...Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals."
  3. "Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase."
  4. "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."
  5. "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
  6. "Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."
  7. "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
  8. "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."
  9. "One of the greatest casualties of the war in Vietnam is the great society...shot down on the battlefield of Vietnam."
  10. "I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality...I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word."
President Lyndon B Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act 1964 with Martin Luther King looking on.  The Act was a tremendous achievement for King, but did not mean that he stopped his work.

President Lyndon B Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act 1964 with Martin Luther King looking on. The Act was a tremendous achievement for King, but did not mean that he stopped his work.

King's Transforming Legacy

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy has experienced a shift in American culture over the decades. While he is currently regarded as an iconic civil rights advocate, and he has been viewed as such since before his assassination, some argue that his activism and quotes have been misrepresented in a manner that softens his perspective on racism. King's quotes are often shared or presented to solely imply that prejudice is wrong, but his quotes about holding those with privilege accountable for change are often ignored. King didn't just believe racism and race-based discrimination were wrong, he also wanted people with power to actively abolish that sort of oppression. King once said, "“Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will, and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters…then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

The aforementioned quote articulates King's insistence that segregation and violence needed to be eliminated without hesitation. King stressed that lives and the well-being of oppressed people were constantly at risk until those in power took responsibility to address and amend the issue. As well as his views on racism, he also had a wider opposition to damaging social power structures, economic inequality and poverty, and opposed the Vietnam War during his lifetime.

Historians, cultural critics, and political pundits have also noted how MLK was feared and disliked by those in power (including politicians, police officers, etc.) while he was alive, and how they've only embraced his work and perspectives in a shallow sense after his death. Many people have questioned the sincerity of those who quote Dr. King posthumously when they actively worked against him and his efforts while he was alive.

Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King's tomb in Atlanta, Georgia.

Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King's tomb in Atlanta, Georgia.

References

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: Did James Earl Ray escape or not?

Answer: Straight after the assassination, Ray drove to Atlanta. He then picked up his belongings and went to Canada. After hiding out for over a month, he acquired a false Canadian passport and flew to England. After a brief stay in Portugal, he went back to London and was eventually arrested at London Heathrow Airport trying to fly to Belgium. The date was June 8, 1968, two months after King's death.

Question: Did Martin Luther King Jr have any children?

Answer: Yes, King and his wife, Coretta Scott had four children: Yolanda King (1955–2007), Martin Luther King III (b. 1957), Dexter Scott King (b. 1961), and Bernice King (b. 1963).

Question: Who killed Martin Luther King Jr.?

Answer: King was shot dead by James Earl Ray with a single shot fired from a Remington rifle. King was standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Ray fired from the rooming house opposite. Ray had a history of criminal behavior, including armed robbery. He had a strong prejudice against black people and intended to flee to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where there was white minority rule at the time, following the killing of King.

Question: What was MLK's middle name?

Answer: MLK was named "Michael King" at birth, and so he had no middle name. However, his father later changed his son's name to "Martin Luther King Jr." and his middle name from thereon was "Luther".

Question: How did Martin Luther King Jr. Day become a holiday?

Answer: The idea of a federal holiday to celebrate the life of Martin Luther King was first proposed in 1979. However, the federal holiday wasn't signed into law until 1983, following a successful public campaign. The holiday came into effect three years later, although not all states chose to observe it until 1991.

Question: Why did James Earl Ray kill Martin Luther King Jr.?

Answer: Ray was a white supremacist who openly admired Adolf Hitler, so there was almost certainly a racial motive, but why he specifically targeted King and why he did it at that time is not known.

© 2014 Paul Goodman

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Slavery officially ended in 1865, around a hundred years before Martin Luther King's activism. Prejudice against African Americans continued, however. MLK's fought for social, economic, and political equality, motivated by his religious convictions and personal experiences of injustice.

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