10 Amazing Facts about the Life of Martin Luther King Jr.

The most famous leader of the US Civil Rights Movement, and an icon across the globe, the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. is celebrated in Martin Luther King Jr. Day on the third Monday of every January. There can be hardly anyone who isn’t familiar with his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, where he spoke about his dreams of racial equality for his children, and across America. But how much do you know about the details of his story? Read on to find out more about the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the inspirational acts of Martin Luther King.

1. His fight against racism began at an early age

Martin Luther King grew up at a time when racial discrimination was enshrined in law.

To better understand Martin Luther King, it’s important to under the context of the United States that he lived in. In southern states, Jim Crow Laws segregated schools, government facilities and infrastructure, barred interracial marriage, and denied black people the vote. Though lynching – mob-led murders, usually of black people, that were ignored or sometimes participated in by law enforcement – was less common than it had been in the late 19th century, the threat nonetheless remained. In the northern states, though racism was not laid in law to the same extent, the lives of African-Americans remained curtailed through prejudice in every area of life from housing, to education, to schooling.

Though King’s family were wealthy and he grew up in a prosperous part of Atlanta, Georgia, experiences of racism were a constant in King’s early life – alongside protests against such treatment, such as his father walking out of a shoe shop after being asked to move to the back of the shop to be served. He attended a segregated school, and lost friends as a result of the prejudice of their parents.

2. His achievements came despite struggling with lifelong depression

King entered a prestigious college at the age of just 15.

Martin Luther King was a gifted student, skipping two grades of school to enter Morehouse College, to study Medicine and Law, at the age of just 15, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. Yet this success hides what was clearly a troubled childhood. His father beat him and his brother with a belt for any minor wrongdoing.

His grandmother, Jennie Parks, had helped to raise him and had been a source of love in his life, but she died when he was twelve years old. He had been supposed to be in the house with her, but went to see a parade instead. He held himself responsible, and attempted suicide by jumping out of a window. It was the second suicide attempt of his short life; thankfully, it was unsuccessful.

This was just one incident in a childhood marked with bouts of severe depression. And it was undoubtedly the case that the constant background of discrimination that he experienced – being slapped in the face as an eight-year-old child for standing on a white woman’s foot, as just one example – exacerbated his mental health difficulties.

3. He gained his first degree at the age of just 19

Martin Luther King met his wife Coretta while at college.

Morehouse College represented a breath of fresh air for King. Earning his way through working on a plantation, he experienced academic success, found his religious calling and enjoyed life with the constant background pressure of racial discrimination at least somewhat eased, though not removed.

In this environment, King thrived. After graduating with his first degree, a BA in sociology, at the age of 19 he entered Crozer Theological Seminary and graduated three years later with a B.Div. He also had a relationship with a white woman who worked in the cafeteria at the seminary, but ultimately did not go on to propose, knowing the damage an interracial marriage would do to his career prospects. It was just another instance of the impact of segregation and discrimination on his life – all before he had reached the age of 25. But by 1955, he had married Coretta Scott, gained a PhD in systematic theology, had his first of four children, and become pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where the stage was set for his involvement in one of the most significant protests in modern history.

4. He led the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955

The arrest of Rosa Parks triggered the famous boycott.

In Montgomery, Alabama, where King had settled to raise his family, segregation laws meant that black customers were obliged to sit at the back of the bus, and to give up their seats to white passengers when the buses were full. The case of Morgan v. Virginia in 1946 had overturned such rules on interstate bus travel, but local buses were still affected. Drivers also routinely left black passengers stranded or refused to accept their valid tickets.

In March 1955, 15-year-old Alabama schoolgirl Claudette Colvin was arrested when she refused to give up her bus seat to white man. Despite her young age, Colvin was already active in the NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) as a member of its youth movement. The local civil rights campaign, with which King had become involved, considered centering a campaign around Colvin’s arrest, but decided that her age and the fact she was pregnant meant it would be better to have someone else as the focus of the campaign.

That person was Rosa Parks, another local NAACP member. In December 1955, she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus, and the local campaigners swung into action with Martin Luther King at their head. After a year of boycotting the Montgomery bus system and a long battle through the courts, the city finally relented and passed an ordinance allowing black passengers to sit anywhere on buses.

5. He supported nonviolent protest, but still had his phone wiretapped by the FBI

King took inspiration from Gandhi.

Martin Luther King was, like many, inspired by the nonviolent protests of Mahatma Gandhi, which inspired him to visit India in 1959, and to credit Gandhi when he received the Nobel Peace Prize. He even remained conflicted about the use of violence for the purposes of self-defence. Despite this avowed nonviolence – meaning that the only threat King posed was to the political order, not to anyone’s safety – he was under FBI surveillance from 1963 until his death.

Beyond this, the FBI and other security organisations sought to undermine King in whatever they could. They looked for evidence that he could be discredited as a Communist – which he wasn’t – and when this failed, they instead tried to undermine him by suggesting he behaved immorally in his private life by having affairs. Shortly before he received the Nobel Prize, the FBI made an attempt to blackmail him by sending information they had discovered to him and to his wife. The full story remains a mystery, with the FBI archive from their surveillance of King sealed until 2027.

6. He was arrested 29 times

This was King’s mugshot following his arrest in 1963.

Martin Luther King was arrested and jailed repeatedly, often as part of mass arrests of dozens or even hundreds of protesters. Being arrested was sometimes a deliberate act of protest in itself, in order to draw attention to unjust laws; this was the case in a 1963 campaign against racial injustice in Birmingham, Alabama, where black protesters including children occupied public spaces that they were barred by law from entering.

While in jail, King wrote his famous ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’, wherein he argued that not only was it morally acceptable to break an unjust law, but that there existed a moral duty to do so. He wrote, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
That’s not say that King was disdainful of other means of achieving political change. At one point, Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura in the TV series Star Trek, was considering leaving the show to pursue a career as a Broadway singer. It was King who persuaded her to stay, arguing that her presence on the show as a woman of colour was a powerful symbol and should not be lost.

7. He didn’t follow his prepared text for the most famous lines of his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech

A vast audience gathered to call for their rights and to hear King speak.

King’s 17-minute ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, delivered in 1963, has become a textbook example of inspiring public speaking. But the most famous and quotable part of the speech was not part of his original text, though he had spoken on variations on that theme to other audiences. He was prompted by singer Mahalia Jackson, who called out near the end of his speech, “Tell them about the dream!” King then delivered his most famous speech to an audience of 250,000 people, a protest so large that a huge police presence had been summoned and hospitals put elective surgeries on hold. But despite the numbers, just four people were arrested, and all of them white.

In response to the march and the speech, Time magazine named King its person of the year for 1963, and just a few months later, he became the youngest man to win the Nobel Peace Prize (Malala Yousafzai is the youngest person ever to have won it).

8. He considered a run for president

King’s opposition to the Vietnam War lost him some allies.

The political establishment had a fraught relationship with Martin Luther King. President Kennedy had originally opposed King’s 1963 March on Washington, and pressured him to water down the stridency of his messages. King generally avoided taking public positions on politics where that didn’t relate to civil rights issues, but in 1967 he changed his approach and spoke out against the Vietnam War, arguing that the war was unjust and used resources that should have been spent supporting the American poor.

It was a stance that cost King some allies, but gained him others, including a collection of liberal leaders who contacted him to request he run for President as a third-party anti-war candidate. And King did give the idea some consideration; his ultimate decision against it was motivated by the belief that his political goals would be better served if he kept his sharp focus on activism.

9. His focus was not just on racial issues, but on poverty too

The Poor People’s Campaign was a multiracial movement.

By 1968, King had made significant progress in changing the law for African-Americans. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act had outlawed discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex, or national origin, requiring equality in voter registration and banning segregation in the delivery of public services. But it soon became clear that changes to the law – though welcome – were not materially improving the lives of many black people in the USA.

King saw poverty as being just as much of a civil rights issue as discriminatory legislation. As a result, he organised the Poor People’s Campaign. It was a multiracial campaign that aimed to bring poor people together under one banner, calling for an economic bill of rights that included full employment, a guaranteed income and more housing for the poor. But despite extensive campaigning, no such bill was ever passed.

10. Just days after his assassination, Congress passed another landmark Civil Rights Act

Rioting across the USA followed King’s assassination.

Long a target of violence, King was fatally shot by James Earl Ray on the 4th of April, 1968. But though his life was cut tragically short, his legacy endures to the present day. On the 11th April, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which banned discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion or national origin, and provided some means of enforcing this prohibition as well. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was first observed in 1986, to honour his memory. His wife and children also carried on his campaigning after his death.

One crucial aspect of King’s legacy is to have inspired a generation of activists, campaigners and political leaders, demonstrating the impact that one person’s actions can have if they inspire those around them. Prospective leaders of the future might wish to learn more about our course on Introduction to Leadership and Global Leadership Programme, to discover the skills and knowledge they might need to follow in King’s footsteps and make the world a better place.

Image credits: segregation; Morehouse College, Coretta Scott; Rosa Parks; Gandhi; mugshot; speech; with Lyndon B Johnson; Poor People’s Campaign; rioting; MLK.