Things You Didn’t Know About Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Phill Powell

Today the nation commemorates the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But while the whole world knows his name and understands his basic story, there’s still a lot you may have never known about the man.

A public speaker of rare power: MLK delivers his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech in August 1963.

To borrow a phrase from poet Walt Whitman, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “contained multitudes.” So here are some amazing things you may not have known about MLK:

  • Family Business King came to the preaching profession naturally. Not only was his father also a Baptist minister, but so were his grandfather and great-grandfather.
  • Originally Named Michael When his father toured the German home of Protestant reformation leader Martin Luther, young Michael King, Jr. (age 5) was renamed in honor of him…after the father first changed his own name in tribute.

  • Choir Boy King always loved music, and had an amazingly talented choir voice. At age 10, he sang with his church choir at a major Atlanta event – the world premiere of the classic Gone With the Wind.
  • Brilliant Student King was a genuine whiz kid, so bright that he skipped the 9th and 12th grades. He entered college at 15. Then, after earning his B.A from Morehouse University, he received a Ph.D from Boston University.
  • Talented Writer King was one of history’s most famous speakers; unsurprisingly, he was a good writer. However, he was above that, considered a true literary talent. (His “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is regularly taught in college English classes as a model of essay writing.)
  • Adlibbed Historic Speech Perhaps MLK’s most famous moment was his March on Washington speech, given in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial. He had finished his prepared remarks when gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (King’s friend) yelled out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.”

    Then, in front of 250,000 attendees, King launched into the famous “I Have a Dream” section of the speech – which wasn’t even included in his prepared text. That’s how powerful a speaker King was: He adlibbed the most electrifying moment of the 1960s civil rights movement.
  • Youngest Nobel Winner King’s work as a leader was based strongly on the principles of civil disobedience, which teaches to create change without violence. For his work, he was awarded the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. At only age 35, he was the youngest winner ever.

David Oyeloto shines as Dr. King in 2014’s Selma.

  • Personal Heroes King was a Baptist minister, so it’s not surprising that he listed Jesus Christ as a personal hero. He was also strongly influenced by Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi, as well as the American writer Henry David Thoreau and Russian War and Peace author Leo Tolstoy.
  • Grammy Winner In addition to other awards, King has a fairly unique distinction among political leaders: he won a Grammy. In 1971, three years after his assassination, an album of his speeches, called “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam,” received a Best Spoken Word Grammy award.
  • Arrested for Beliefs MLK is a revered national icon now, but at one time he was considered highly dangerous by many Americans. One of them was J. Edgar Hoover, ultra-powerful director of the FBI, who hounded King with surveillance and harassment for years.

    King had to stand up and be counted on multiple occasions, eventually getting arrested nearly 30 times – sometimes jailed after participating in marches and demonstrations and often arrested and incarcerated on falsely based charges.
  • The Threat of Danger King faced the threat of physical beatings and possible murder for more than a decade. He was a constant target of haters, receiving an unending supply of death threats.

    He was also nearly killed in 1958, when a disturbed person at a book-signing event stabbed King in the heart with a letter opener, nearly ending his life.

    He used the experience to demonstrate the full depth of his convictions, choosing to forgive the would-be assassin.
  • The Shadow of Death King would not get the chance to forgive James Earl Ray, the man convicted for firing a rifle slug into Rev. King as he stood on the balcony of a Memphis hotel in April 1968. King died at the scene. He had talked openly about the possibility of his own death at a speech…the night before his murder.

    King’s assassination created massive national unrest, but the public outcry helped ensure the passage of historic U.S. Civil Rights legislation, signed into law a few days following his death.


Although murdered at the young age of 39, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. helped promote monumental social change in America.

His legacy carries enormous importance, not only to African-Americans, but to all U.S. citizens who cherish the nation’s ideals of equality. Even more than that, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has come to be regarded around the world as a symbolic figure who helped lead a great struggle for human rights, and ultimately became a martyr for his beliefs. His inspiration continues to be felt in many lands.

And it’s still remembered passionately in his own country, which continues to struggle with the same old themes of race and inequality. Were MLK still with us, no doubt he would remind us of the work still left to be done here in America. And then he would get busy doing it.

Soldiers without weapons: King led legions of warriors armed only with the truth and human dignity.


This MLK Day, why not take some time to find out more about the extraordinary achievements of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.?

One great way to experience King’s legacy in action is by viewing the 2014 biopic Selma. The film brings to life the turbulent history of the 1965 civil rights march in the Alabama city named in the title.

It’s an exciting, compelling movie, anchored by a magnetic performance by actor David Oyelowo. Although he doesn’t exactly resemble Dr. King, Oyelowo perfectly captures the intriguing and complex nature of this fascinating public figure.

Director Ava DuVernay’s Selma is an example of how movies can make history that’s even 50 years old feel alive and current. This is a riveting movie – especially for anyone who might want to learn filmmaking.

Selma is now available for live streaming through Amazon Prime and Hulu. It’s also available at the iTunes Store.

Happy MLK Day…from Digital Media Academy.