We Americans worship heroes we barely know. We follow athletes because of their sports statistics rather than their character or what they stand for. We elect presidents because they can argue persuasively in debates, even when we don’t know much about their lives or lifestyles.
Martin Luther King is an exception. He is an American hero who wanted to be known. He had incredible family roots and beliefs, which he communicated powerfully through the written and spoken word. While he was known for his letters and speeches, there is still enough about him that remains a mystery.
Today, I celebrate his birthday by re-publishing this blog. These are surprising bits of trivia about Martin Luther King that I hope you enjoy:
1. Martin Luther King was not his real name.
Michael was born in Atlanta in 1929, named after his father, Michael Sr. When he was only two years old, Michael Jr. (our beloved MLK) went with his family to Europe. Michael Senior was so profoundly affected by the person of Martin Luther, the great reformer, that upon his return to the States changed his name to Martin Luther King, Sr. and his son’s to Martin Luther King, Jr.
2. He came from a powerful and spiritual family.
His father and mother were both ordained ministers. Educated and respected leaders in the Atlanta community, the family lived with his maternal grandparents, the Reverend and Mrs. A.D. Williams.
While the Kings were known for their virtue, they were also seen as radicals, embracing not only racial, but gender equality. At this point in time, the Christian church preached the submission of women (not much has changed in some churches). The King men were staunch believers in the power of Jesus Christ and the Bible and believed in living according to the word of God, which teaches nothing less. They led Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, right down the street from their home.
3. His call to stand up for the civil rights of a nation started in childhood.
Martin Jr. grew up in a racially segregated world. It really didn’t matter that his parents were educated; the American south had enforced laws about the separation of blacks and whites.
Etched clearly in King’s memory was a story of his family's outing to buy new shoes. Excited at the prospect, Martin entered the store with his family, only to be immediately ushered to the back exit.
“No coloreds.” The store owner said. The Kings knew this--they weren't ignorant of the segregation--and the elder Kings called these "daily protests" against segregation. They regularly shopped at "white only" stores just so the owners would be forced to confront their own racist policies.
Martin learned on that day that blacks were not allowed in most restaurants, on public beaches or swimming pools. They couldn’t drink from the same water fountains as white people and couldn’t use the same toilets. His father's daily protests started a fire in Martin's heart. This shoe-store event began to shape King's passionate crusade for righteousness.
4. He graduated high school at 15.
MLK skipped both 9th and 12th grades (some historians have him skipping the 11th), and enrolled in Morehouse College, a prestigious private, all-male, black university in Atlanta. He graduated with a Bachelors degree in sociology at age 19.
5. He thought his wife was brave for taking him on.
After Morehouse, King completed seminary and was introduced to Coretta Scott, a woman whose wit and vigor was an incredible match for his.
As much as Martin is celebrated, Corrie (what he called her) was as well. A brilliant thinker, gorgeous in physical appearance and social graces, Coretta was also known for her voice: a mezzo-soprano. Her voice, Martin said later, was angelic and worshipful.
On the night they wed, the newlyweds were denied entrance to their hotel (supposedly booked knowing it was a whites-only place). The couple decided to spend their wedding night at a Black-owned funeral home. It was only the beginning of many stands for justice they took together.
6. He’s called “Dr. Martin Luther King” because he was a PhD. This title was not honorary.
After marriage, King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, when he was twenty-five years old. He then began doctoral studies in systematic theology at Boston University and received his Ph. D in 1955.
He was just getting started.
7. Rosa sat down and Martin stood up - in that order.
On a December,1955 evening in Montgomery, Rosa Parks rode the bus home seated in the fifth row, which was permissible. It was, after all, the first row of the "colored section".
It was standard practice that when the bus became full, the seats nearer the front were given to white passengers. This happened and the bus driver asked Parks and three other African-Americans seated nearby to move: “Move y'all, I want those two seats!"
Three riders complied, but Parks did not.
The bus driver threatened to have her arrested, and Ms. Parks said he had every freedom to do that. She wasn’t breaking any written law; she was just uppity and he called her bluff.
Upon hearing of the arrest, King and his colleague (Ralph Abernathy) organized a city-wide boycott intended to cripple the financial legs of the bus companies. A staunch devotee of nonviolence, the men were adamant that no one should lose their cool.
Martin wrote to the city with the organized plan of protest: Black passengers should be treated with courtesy. Seating should be allotted on a first-come-first-serve basis, with white passengers sitting from front to back and black passengers sitting from back to front. Negro drivers should drive routes that primarily serviced Negroes.
On Monday, December 5, 1955 the boycott went into effect – it was the beginning of organized non-violent protests across the south. Martin was at the forefront of a revolution.
8. He was a man determined to be seen and heard.
From 1957 until his death in 1968, King gave over 2,500 speeches; he traveled more than 6 million miles; and he wrote five books and countless articles published in newspapers and magazines.
Upon seeing him deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech, John F. Kennedy, amazed and open-mouthed, turned to his chief of staff and said, “Damn, he’s good!”
My favorite writing of his (besides the PERFECT “I have a Dream” speech) is the letter he wrote from an Alabama jail to the surrounding clergymen. This portion resonates the most in my soul:
“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. 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; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience…”
9. MLK set his face towards Jerusalem.
Martin had two heroes: Jesus Christ and Martin Luther. Both men were killed in the middle of their ministry, for their beliefs. Martin seemed to recognize the same would be true for him.
After many, many death threats and his own people warning him to “go underground for awhile” Martin eventually made peace with the destiny he had – to die for the cause worth dying for. On April 3, 1968 (the day before he was assassinated), he preached at the at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee:
“Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about a thing. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
10. Martin’s heart betrayed a life lived at full speed.
King was assassinated in Memphis when he was 39, after two other attempts on his life. The details of the assassination are sketchy, but all evidence shows it was a conspiracy, not the act of a lone gunman.
At the hospital, one of the attending doctors noted during his autopsy that King “had the heart of a 60-year-old." A heart that was tired; overworked and stressed – beating in the man that championed respect and nonviolence.
Martin, we hardly knew ye…
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