main story image for facebook sharing

History and Heritage

Why we Remember

11 Things to Know About MLK

1. Martin Luther King Jr. was actually born Michael King Jr. on Jan. 15, 1929. In 1934, his father, pastor of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, traveled to Germany and was inspired by Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation. As a result, King Sr. changed his own name as well as that of his 5-year-old son.

2. King skipped grades nine and 12, and was admitted to Morehouse College at the age of 15 in 1944, the alma mater of both his father and maternal grandfather. Although he came from a long line of Baptist ministers, King did not intend to follow in his family's footsteps until Benjamin E. Mays, Morehouse president and a noted theologian, convinced him otherwise. King was ordained before graduating with a degree in sociology. He later earned a doctorate in theology and would be awarded honorary degrees in law, the social sciences and more from numerous colleges and universities.


3. Following Rosa Parks' arrest for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus in 1955, civil rights activists started a boycott of the city's transit system and chose King as their leader. He had the advantage of being a young, well-trained man who was too new in town to have made enemies. King would go on to co-found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; travel the world speaking about civil rights; author many sermons, articles and books; and lead the "March on Washington."


4. King was heavily influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and the civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who both advocated nonviolence. He even took a month-long trip to India and met family members and followers of Gandhi, the man he described in his autobiography as "the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change."

5. King was arrested for acts of civil disobedience and on trumped-up charges nearly 30 times. One example is when he was jailed in Montgomery, Alabama, for driving five miles over the speed limit. Later, after being arrested during a protest in Birmingham, Alabama, he would write the civil-rights manifesto known as the "Letter from Birmingham" in April 1963, which was addressed to a group of white clergymen who criticized his tactics.

Photo Collage




6. King's "I Have a Dream" speech almost didn't happen. An expensive sound system had been installed for the "March on Washington" rally in August 1963, but it was sabotaged. Attorney General Robert Kennedy had to enlist the Army Corps of Engineers to fix the system before the event.

7. King was named Man of the Year by Time magazine in 1963, becoming the first African-American to receive this honor, although this was not his first time on the cover. He was previously on the cover of a 1957 issue.

8. In 1964 at the age of 35, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. At the time, he was the youngest man to ever receive it. When notified of his selection, he announced that he would donate the prize money - more than $54,000 - to further the civil rights movement.

9. King was fatally shot, Apr. 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. James Earl Ray, an escaped convict and known racist, pled guilty to the murder and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He later recanted his confession and gained some unlikely advocates, including members of the King family, but no one else has ever been arrested for King's murder. Ray died in 1998.

10. In 1983, after years of campaigning by activists, members of Congress and Coretta Scott King, among others, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating a U.S. federal holiday in King's honor. Martin Luther King Jr. Day has been observed on the third Monday of every January since 1986.


Photo Collage



11. Thanks in part to King's efforts and sacrifices, there have been many changes in how the Navy, which didn't commission black officers until February 1944, treats African-Americans and other minority Sailors. Following King's assassination, in 1970, President Richard Nixon nominated Adm. Elmo "Bud" Zumwalt Jr. to be the chief of naval operations (CNO). That same year, Zumwalt, who said, "There is no black Navy, no white Navy - just one Navy - the United States Navy," issued the "Equal Opportunity in the Navy" directive. This order required each commanding officer to appoint a minority Sailor as a special assistant for minority affairs, demanded that the Navy fight housing discrimination against African-American Sailors in cities where they were based, and required that books by and about African-Americans be made available in Navy libraries.

Sources: History.com, the King Center, ConstituionCenter.org, Naval History and Heritage Command.

Editor's note: To learn more about Adm. Elmo "Bud" Zumwalt Jr. click here.