Martin Luther King Jr. Day is observed on the third Monday in January as a day devoted to volunteerism and service. Every year when the holiday rolls around, many of us seem to enjoy a day to sleep in with little consideration about the man that we honor. I would bet most people know little about him, unless they saw the 2014 movie “Selma,” about his life and the historic 1965 march to Selma, Ala.
He was much more than a civil rights icon and religious leader – he was a catalyst for change among blacks and others around the world. The film inspired me to learn more about Dr. King and his activist colleagues. Here are some interesting things that may help you get a closer look at MLK, the man:
According to Biography.com, after learning about his grandmother’s fatal heart attack in May 1941, a then-12-year-old King jumped from the second story window of his family home. This was a crushing blow for King because he had grown very close to his maternal grandmother, Jennie Parks Williams. She lived with his family for 10 years after becoming a widow. He was quoted as saying her death was probably the most impactful event of his childhood. After her death, King said that he believed Williams’ spirit was still with him.
Family Left Penniless
King was assassinated in 1968, leaving behind no financial assets or a will. Although his wife, Coretta, had asked him to set aside funds to educate their four children, King died with no appreciable assets despite his five books, hundreds of speaking engagements, his ministry, and the $54,600 he earned from his Nobel Peace Prize – money that he gave away.
King viewed his own financial sacrifice as a vow of relative poverty. Even his funeral procession lacked a Cadillac or Lincoln limousine, but had a plain casket drawn by a mule carriage. Activist friends raised money later to ensure that his four children were supported and educated. The absence of a will led to many court battles over the use of his works.
Streets Honor His Name
Today the U.S. boasts about 730 roads named for King, with one such street in nearly every major city. Additionally there countless number of buildings, schools, and the like named after civil rights activist. In my home state of Michigan, there are six major cities with a street, drive or boulevard honoring his memory.
An Unlikely Trekkie
King was a huge fan of the “Star Trek” the television series, which debuted in 1966. When black actress Nichelle Nichols considered leaving the cast of the popular series after the first season, King personally convinced her to stay. Nichols played Lieutenant Uhura aboard the USS Enterprise, one of the first black characters who didn’t reflect stereotypical role by black actors.
Although King is celebrated as an accomplished public speaker, he got a C in public speaking during his first year at Crozer Theological Seminary School in Chester, Pa. His father, Martin Luther King Sr., noted that before attending seminary his son was one of the best public speakers he’d seen. However, his professor gave him a C, but by his final year, King was a straight-A student and valedictorian of his class. King also was elected president of the school’s student body.
Stabbing Nearly Killed Him
At a Harlem book signing in 1958, King was stabbed with a seven-inch letter opener and almost died. The attacker, Izola Ware Curry, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, said the motive for the stabbing was because she had been waiting to see him for over five years. The letter opener was so close to King’s aorta that it took hours for doctors to safely remove it. Curry spent 14 years in Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane before being moved to a state-run women’s facility.
According to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, King said at the time: “I felt no ill will toward Mrs. Izola Curry and know that thoughtful people will do all in their power to see that she gets the help she apparently needs if she is to become a free and constructive member of society.”
King won a Grammy Award in 1971 for Best Spoken Word Album for “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam.” He beat out Bill Cosby, a group of Apollo astronauts and a group of American poets for the award. The 1967 oration was recorded during a speech he delivered at Riverside Church in New York City.
His speech protests the command and deployment by President Lyndon Johnson of almost unlimited violence against the people and the land of Vietnam for the declared purpose of protecting them from the menace of world communism. King believed that silence on the issue amounted to social betrayal despite the fact that the N.A.A.C.P. said it was improper for him to link civil rights to war opposition.
Mom was a Martyr
His mother, Alberta Williams King, was also murdered. In 1974, 23-year-old Marcus Wayne Chenault shot and killed the King matriarch while she played the organ during service at Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. The shooter claimed that “all Christians are my enemies.”
Chenault was sentenced to the death penalty, but was spared as the King family adamantly opposed his death. He was resentenced to life in prison and died from a stroke in 1995 at age 44.
Late Holiday Adoption
It wasn’t until 2000 that all 50 states would officially observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The last states to join were Arizona in 1992, New Hampshire in 1999 and Utah in 2000. The holiday was originally signed into federal law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, with the first MLK holiday observed Jan. 20, 1986.
U.S. Sen. Edward Brooke (R-Mass.) introduced the bill to adopt a national holiday in 1979. After a failed attempt, the King Center and others campaigned to adopt the holiday. Six million signatures were collected for a petition to pressure Congress to pass the law.
Detroit Dream Speech
According to KingEncyclopedia.Stanford.edu, King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Detroit June 23, 1963, nearly two months before reciting it on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in D.C. More than 25,000 people heard him deliver it at downtown Detroit’s Cobo Hall immediately after 125,000 people marched with him through the streets of Detroit. Afterwards, Motown producer Berry Gordy released the speech on LP, entitled “The Great March to Freedom.”
Hopefully you’ve learned something new by reading more about MLK, the man. You can learn more facts by reading this infographic about King’s life.
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