Martin Luther King, Jr. was easily one of the most influential people of the 20th century. In his thousands of speeches, including the famous “I Have a Dream” speech, he promoted a nonviolent civil-rights movement that would change the world forever. Given that he led such an incredible life, it’s hard for the typical high-school textbook to capture every detail of Dr. King's legacy — so here are nine things about Martin Luther King, Jr. that you probably didn't learn in history class.
His name wasn’t originally Martin
Martin Luther King, Jr. was brought into the world as Michael King, Jr., named after his father. In 1934, the elder King took a trip to Germany to attend the World Baptist Alliance meeting. During his stay, he learned all about the religious revolutionary Martin Luther, who sparked the Protestant Revolution in the 16th century. He returned to the United States inspired and changed his own name to Martin Luther King — and his young son’s to Martin Luther King, Jr.
He performed at the premiere of "Gone With the Wind"
The iconic movie "Gone With the Wind" held its world premiere in Atlanta in 1939. As is still the case with movie premieres, it was a lavish production full of Hollywood stars — minus the film's black cast members, who weren't invited despite playing key roles in the Civil War-set epic. The only involvement that any people of color had in the premiere came via the Ebenezer Baptist Church, who performed spirituals for the audience under some not-so-welcoming circumstances. One of those singers was the pastor's son — a 1o-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr.
The “I Have a Dream” speech wasn’t his first at the Lincoln Memorial
While the “I Have a Dream” speech is by far his most famous, it wasn’t the first time Dr. King spoke at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. In 1957, six years before that renowned speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “Give Us the Ballot” address. The speech was given for the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom event at which King was the headline speaker. It was his very first national audience, and it’s what launched him into the national arena.
He convinced Nichelle Nichols to stay on "Star Trek"
As the civil rights movement was gaining momentum in the 1960s, so too was the popularity of the original "Star Trek" television series. One of the show's stars was Nichelle Nichols, who at the time was one of only a few actresses of color to appear on screen in a main role — let alone as a proud, intelligent, and independent leader of a team.
Eventually, though, Nichols wanted to leave the show to pursue a theater career. At an event in Beverly Hills, she was introduced to Dr. King — whom she remembers saying, "Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan." Dr. King allegedly went on to explain that her presence on TV was an important and inspirational representation of African-Americans, especially because her character was living in a peaceful future as an equal — precisely the mission of the civil-rights movement. After that, Nichols remained on the show for the duration of its run.
At the time, he was the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize
Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, when he was 35 years old. At the time, that made him the youngest-ever winner of the coveted award. He has since been dethroned by Malala Yousifazi, who won the award in 2014 when she was 17.
Stevie Wonder's "Happy Birthday" is about him
"Happy Birthday" is one of Stevie Wonder's many iconic hits, and it was all inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. After Dr. King's assassination, a national campaign was launched to commemorate his life with a national holiday. Progress in the legislature was slow; it wasn't until more than 10 years after Dr. King's death that Stevie Wonder reinvigorated the effort. His 1980 song "Happy Birthday" explicitly called for a national holiday celebrating Dr. King and directly addressed those who opposed it.
Three years, a massive march on Washington, and many congressional hearings later, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was finally established in 1983 and officially celebrated for the first time in 1986.
He's one of two Americans to have their birthday made into a national holiday
Now that you know the (brief) history of MLK Day, did you know that he is one of only two Americans to receive the honor of having their birthday turned into a national holiday? The only two Americans in history to have their birthdays made into national holidays are Martin Luther King, Jr. and George Washington. It’s hard to think of two people more deserving. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is the third Monday of January every year, so it doesn’t always fall on his actual birthday, which is January 15.
For those who think that Abraham Lincoln’s birthday was a national holiday until Presidents Day appeared on our calendars, one group that tracks holidays points out that in 1940, 24 states plus the District of Columbia did observe Lincoln’s birthday, but it was never instituted as a formal, national holiday.
He authored five books
In his lifetime, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote and published five books:
- “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story” (1958) – the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
- “Strength to Love” (1963) – a collection of King’s most requested sermons
- “Why We Can’t Wait” (1963) – general writings
- “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” (1967) – King’s assessment of America’s priorities
- “The Trumpet of Conscience” (1968) – taken from King’s 1967 Massey Lectures, where he spoke on the Vietnam War, civil disobedience, and youth
He traveled more than 6 million miles from 1957 to 1968
In just 11 years, Martin Luther King, Jr. traveled more than 6 million miles around the country, mostly in the South, and delivered an incredible 2,500 speeches. He wanted to make sure that people everywhere could hear his voice and request for nonviolent change.