10 Surprising Facts About Martin Luther King Jr.

8 minute read

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a pivotal figure in the civil rights movement, dedicated his life to advocating for racial harmony and the realization of the American dream for all.

As the U.S. comes together to celebrate his life and legacy on Monday, Jan. 15, 2024, for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, TIME has compiled a number of lesser-known facts about the man whose unwavering commitment to justice and equality shaped the course of American history.

He was the first Black person to be named TIME Man of the Year

TIME named King as the 1963 “Man of the Year," making the civil rights leader the first Black person to receive the honor. “Few can explain the extraordinary King mystique,” TIME wrote in the story. “Yet he has an indescribable capacity for empathy that is the touchstone of leadership. By deed and by preachment, he has stirred in his people a Christian forbearance that nourishes hope and smothers injustice.”

King later said that being named TIME Man of the Year—now Person of the Year—was a tribute to the entire civil rights movement, and commended the magazine for prominently featuring a Black person on its cover.

MLK improvised part of his 'I have a dream' speech

The resounding “I have a dream” speech that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered at the March on Washington in 1963 almost didn’t include those powerful words. His advisors thought he had overused the theme in his speeches, prompting him to draft a different speech for the address titled “Normalcy Never Again.”

But as King addressed the crowd of nearly 250,000 in Washington, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called out to him: “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.”

He paused, and then decided to leave his prepared notes behind to improvise the entire next section of his speech, which famously begins: “So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

An assassination attempt affirmed his faith in nonviolence

A decade before his death, King narrowly escaped an assassination attempt while signing copies of his memoir about the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott, Stride Toward Freedom, in Harlem. Izola Ware Curry, a 42-year-old Black woman, approached him and thrust a seven-inch ivory-handled steel letter opener into his chest with such force that it snapped the handle. “I’ve been after him for six years. I’m glad I done it!” she reportedly shouted. The blade stopped just beside his heart, and doctors later told him that if he had so much as sneezed, he would not have survived.

After the incident, King said that he bore no animus toward the woman and did not want charges pressed, reiterating his commitment to nonviolence. Curry was committed to a mental hospital and died in 2015.

King is the only non-President whose birthday is a national holiday

The push for a federal holiday in honor of King began just four days after his assassination on April 4, 1968. But despite the national significance of King's death, legislation to establish a holiday in his honor faced years of stagnation.

For 15 years, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), with the help of Rep. Shirley A. Chisholm (D-N.Y.), tried to pass legislation that would designate a national holiday in observance of King’s birthday. The bill finally came to a vote in the House in 1979, but it was rejected by five votes despite the backing of President Jimmy Carter. Congressman Gene Taylor (R-Mo.) led the opposition citing the added cost of a federal holiday. “I do not believe our present economic situation will allow us the luxury of another $212 million Federal holiday,” Taylor said.

Public support for the bill began to grow after Motown singer and songwriter Stevie Wonder released a song called “Happy Birthday,” a tribute to King that added momentum to the campaign to designate his birthday as a federal holiday. Legislation was signed into law in 1983, 15 years after his death, by President Ronald Reagan.

It wasn't until 2000 that MLK Day was officially observed in all 50 states for the first time.

King started college at 15

King skipped grades 9-12 and by the age of 15 was admitted to Morehouse College, a prestigious historically Black college in Atlanta that both his father and maternal grandfather attended.

Despite being part of a lineage of Baptist ministers, King was initially resistant to a career in the ministry due to his discomfort with the emotionality of Black church congregations. But Morehouse college president Benjamin E. Mays and his philosophy teacher George D. Kelsey, both ordained ministers, persuaded him to reconsider. King became an ordained minister in his father's church while an undergrad, and later pursued religious and philosophy studies at the racially-integrated Crozer Theological Seminary and the University of Pennsylvania. It was during this time that King, influenced by Mahatma Gandhi's teachings, embraced the idea of nonviolent resistance as a constructive force for societal change.

The King family paid hospital bill for Julia Roberts’ birth

Actress Julia Roberts revealed that the King family covered her parents' hospital expenses when she was born in 1967. “My parents couldn't pay for the hospital,” she told Gayle King in a 2022 interview on the History Channel.

Roberts explained that her parents owned a theater school in Atlanta, and that Coretta Scott King asked if her children could enroll. “They were having a hard time finding a place that would accept her kids, and my mom was like, ‘Sure come on over,’” Roberts said. "And so they all just became friends and they helped us out of a jam."

King was arrested 30 times

Like many civil rights activists of the time, King faced numerous arrests—often on trumped-up charges—as part of a deliberate strategy by police to harass and intimidate. According to the King Center, he was arrested a total of 30 times, mostly for acts of civil disobedience such as the Atlanta department store sit-in and demonstrating without a permit. Others stemmed from unfounded allegations, including his arrest in Montgomery, Ala. for driving 30 miles per hour in a 25-mile-per-hour zone.  

His family believes James Earl Ray was framed for his assassination

Although the federal government has consistently said that James Earl Ray was the assassin responsible for King's death, there’s a lingering belief within his family that Ray is innocent and was framed to shoulder the blame.

The King family filed a civil suit against the U.S. government in 1999 to force more information about the assassination into the public eye, and a Memphis jury ruled that King’s death was the result of a conspiracy and that he did not die at the hands of a lone gunman. The jury reached a verdict that James Earl Ray was not the shooter, but was framed to take the blame, with local, state and federal governments liable for King’s death.

“There is abundant evidence,” Coretta King said after the verdict, “of a major, high-level conspiracy in the assassination of my husband.” The jury found the mafia and various government agencies “were deeply involved in the assassination… Mr. Ray was set up to take the blame.” The King family was awarded damages of $100, which they chose to donate to charity. The family said they sought the small amount because their motive was to pursue the truth rather than make money.

He was the youngest person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

At the age of 35, King became the youngest person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, recognized for his commitment to nonviolent resistance against racial oppression. The accolade followed a remarkable year during which he spearheaded the March on Washington, delivering his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech, played a role in ratifying the 24th Amendment that abolished the poll tax, and contributed to the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited racial discrimination in employment and education.

King reportedly donated the prize money, amounting to $53,123, to support the civil rights movement.

He was named after Protestant reformer Martin Luther

King was born Michael King Jr. on Jan. 15, 1929. But in 1934, his father, a pastor at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church also named Michael King, went on a religious trip around the world and was inspired by Germany’s Protestant Reformation figure Martin Luther, whose advocacy and teachings challenged the Catholic Church and contributed to the split in Western Christianity.

After returning to the U.S., his father made the decision to change his five-year-old son's name—and his own—in honor of the Protestant reformation leader. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth certificate was officially revised on July 23, 1957.

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Write to Nik Popli at nik.popli@time.com