Sunday, January 10, 2016

15 Things you didn't know about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and MLK Day

1.         We know the iconic man as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but that was not his given birth name. In fact, MLK Jr. was Michael on his birth certificate, named after his father (hence the Jr.). But after a trip to Germany in 1931, Michael Sr. decided to change his name to Martin Luther to pay reverence to the historic German theologian of the same name. His son, Michael Jr., was only two years old at the time, so the elder King decided to change his son’s name, too. Thus, Michael King Jr. became Martin Luther King Jr., as we know him.

2.         It was a tragic day for America and the human race when Dr. King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, but he wasn’t the only one who died at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis that day. In fact, Lorraine Bailey, a hotel worker and wife of the owner, passed away from a heart attack after hearing of King’s shooting. Lorraine was working the hotel phone switchboard at the time and suffered an incapacitating heart attack after seeing King shot, later dying from the coronary. Since there was no one else working the switchboard, that caused a long delay in calling an ambulance and getting King medical treatment, though it’s unclear if that would have helped him survive the shooting.

3.         The fateful day in 1968 wasn’t King’s only brush with an assassination. A decade earlier on September 20, 1958, MLK was signing copies of his new book, Stride Toward Freedom, at a department store in Harlem when a female patron named Izola Ware Curr approached him and asked if he was indeed Martin Luther King Jr. King answered yes, at which she replied, “I’ve been looking for you for five years.”  She then took out a seven-inch letter opener blade and plunged it into his chest. MLK was rushed to the hospital but the doctors couldn’t operate for three hours, as the tip of the blade was pressed against his aortic valve. When the blade was finally removed safely, the doctor told King that if he had even sneezed during those three hours, he could have ruptured the aorta and died instantly.

While recovering in the hospital, King reaffirmed his philosophies of non-violence and stated that he bore no ill will or anger towards the mentally ill Curr.

4.         A young King was not only a born leader, but prolifically intelligent. In fact, King bypassed the 9th and 11th grades altogether, entering Moorehouse College at the tender age of 15 in 1944. He graduated with distinction by 19 with a degree in sociology, the first of many degrees and accomplishments in higher learning.

King attended graduate school at Boston University and earned his Ph.D. in systematic theology. He also attended divinity school and got a doctorate from Pennsylvania’s Crozer Theological Seminary at the age of 25.

5.         Over his lifetime, Dr. King Jr. was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and a Medal of Freedom. But few know that he also won a Grammy Award in 1971 – out of context for a civil rights activist – for Best Spoken Word Album for “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam”.

6.         King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 at the age of 35, the youngest person to ever win the prominent award at the time. When the brave and inspirational Malala Yousafzai won the Peace Prize in 2014 at the age of 17, she became the youngest ever, a torch MLK would have been honored to pass down to her.

Winning the Nobel Peace Prize came with a sizable $54,123 payout (about $400,000 today). But instead of pocketing the money, King donated every penny to the Civil Rights Movement. During his acceptance speech, King said, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

7.         Martin Luther King Jr. Day is now a national holiday, observed on the third Monday in January. This year, it will fall on Monday, January 18, though his actual birthday was January 15, 1929.

8.         Only two other people in American history have a national holiday commemorating their birthday, George Washington and Christopher Columbus. Therefore, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the only native born American to have a national holiday honoring his birthday.

9.         Congressman John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan, introduced legislation for a holiday commemorating the deceased Dr. King only four days after his assassination. But getting Dr. King’s birthday approved as a national holiday was not an easy road by any means. The bill was repeatedly stalled, and Coretta Scott King, Stevie Wonder, Rep. Shirley Chisholm  (D-NY), President Jimmy Carter and other prominent politicians and Americans had to fight for it over the years, finally presenting 6,000,000 signatures to congress in 1982.

10.       Finally, in 1983, Congress passed the bill and President Ronald Reagan officially signed legislation creating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a national holiday, despite opposition from Senators Jesse Helms (R-NC) and Gordon Humphrey (R-NH), who attempted to block it.

11.       But some states still resisted observing the holiday. As of January 16, 1989, only 44 states observed Dr. King’s birthday as a holiday. In 1992, Arizona finally approved the holiday only after a tourist boycott. In 1999, New Hampshire changed their Civil Rights Day to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and finally, Utah acquiesced in 2000, the last of all 50 states to observe.

12.       There are now more than 700 streets named after Martin Luther King Jr. all over the country, as well as plenty of schools, libraries, and other civic buildings.

13.       Over his career as a civil rights champion, Dr. King was arrested 29 times on record. He was often arrested and incarcerated on trumped up charges during his campaign of civil disobedience, a tactic used by local law enforcement and segregationists to try and scare Dr. King and dissuade the movement (it didn’t work.)

14.       Few people realize that on the fateful day Dr. King was shot on that motel balcony in Memphis, he was actually standing out there to smoke a cigarette. In fact, MLK was a regular smoker, though he always hid his habit and never appeared in a photo with a cigarette because he didn't want to set a bad example for his kids, advocate or popularize smoking in any way. Before Dr. King was loaded into the ambulance after being shot that day, one his associates, Reverend Kyles, tossed away the fallen civil rights leader’s cigarette butts and removed the pack of smokes from his shirt pocket.

15.       King’s impact on the black community went far beyond the Civil Rights movement that caught the national attention. When Nichelle Nichols, a young black actress on a new sci-fi television program, wanted to quit after the first season amid harassment and threats, Dr. King, a fan of the show, encouraged and persuaded her to stick it out. She did, and became a pioneer in the industry, the first black television character portrayed as intelligent, capable; respected as an equal with her white actors and peers. (Up until then, black actors usually played maids, servants, or other diminished and stereotypical roles.)

The show went on to be a smash hit and Nichols’ character portrayal served as a positive role model for many black kids who went on to achieve great success, such as actress/comedian Whoopi Goldberg and astronaut Ronald McNair, the second black person in space. Nichols even had the first interracial kiss shown on national television in America.

By the way, her character was named “Uhura” and the show, Star Trek.

"Everybody can be great because everybody can serve." 
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., The Drum Major Instinct Sermon

Happy MLK Day!

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