MLK Saw America as the Solution, Not the Problem

The annual observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day is an occasion to remember his message of unity.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached about injustice in America — first racial injustice in the South, enshrined in law; then economic injustice in the North and elsewhere.

But — this is crucial — he never saw America as the problem. He saw America, and its values, as the solution.

He also saw black Americans as equal guardians of the American ideal.

10 MLK Facts about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. You Probably Didn’t Know

1. MARTIN LUTHER KING WAS NOT HIS GIVEN NAME.

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arrives in London in 1961. J. WILDS/KEYSTONE/GETTY IMAGES

One of the most recognizable proper names of the 20th century wasn’t actually what was on the birth certificate. The future civil rights leader was born Michael King Jr. on January 15, 1929, named after his father Michael King.

When the younger King was 5 years old, his father decided to change both their names after learning more about 16th-century theologian Martin Luther, who was one of the key figures of the Protestant Reformation.

Inspired by that battle, Michael King soon began referring to himself and his son as Martin Luther King.


2. MARTIN LUTHER KING WAS JAILED 30 TIMES

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A telegram from boxer Muhammad Ali mailed to a jailed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967. MARIO TAMA/GETTY IMAGES

A powerful voice for an ignored and suppressed minority, opponents tried to silence King the old-fashioned way: incarceration.

In the 12 years he spent as the recognized leader of the civil rights movement, King was arrested and jailed 30 times.

Rather than brood, King used the unsolicited downtime to further his cause. Jailed in Birmingham for eight days in 1963, he penned “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a long treatise responding to the oppression supported by white religious leaders in the South.


3. THE FBI TRIED TO COERCE MLK INTO SUICIDE.

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Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, lead a black voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery in March 1965. WILLIAM LOVELACE/EXPRESS, GETTY IMAGES

King’s increasing prominence and influence agitated many of his enemies, but few were more powerful than FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

While there’s still debate about how independently Hoover’s deputy William Sullivan was acting, an anonymous letter was sent to King in 1964 accusing him of extramarital affairs and threatening to disclose his indiscretions.

The only solution, the letter suggested, would be for King to exit the civil rights movement, either willingly or by taking his own life. King ignored the threat and continued his work.


4. A SNEEZE COULD HAVE ALTERED HISTORY FOREVER.

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a press conference in London, September 1964. REG LANCASTER/DAILY EXPRESS/HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Our collective memory of King always has an unfortunate addendum: his 1968 assassination that brought an end to his personal crusade against social injustice.

But if Izola Ware Curry had her way, King’s mission would have ended 10 years earlier. At a Harlem book signing in 1958, Ware approached King and plunged a seven-inch letter opener into his chest, nearly puncturing his aorta. Surgery was needed to remove it.

Had King so much as sneezed, doctors said, the wound was so close to his heart that it would have been fatal.


5. MLK GOT A “C” IN PUBLIC SPEAKING.

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a meeting in Chicago, Illinois, in May 1966.

JEFF KAMEN/MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES

King’s promise as one of the great orators of his time was late in coming. While attending Crozer Theological Seminary from 1948 to 1951, King’s marks were diluted by C and C+ grades in two terms of public speaking.


6. MLK WON A GRAMMY.

At the 13th annual Grammy Awards in 1971, a recording of King’s 1967 address, “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam,” took home a posthumous award for Best Spoken Word recording.

In 2012, his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame (it was included decades later because its 1969 nomination was beaten for the Spoken Word prize by Rod McKuen’s “Lonesome Cities”).


7. MARTIN LUTHER KING LOVED STAR TREK.

MARTIN LUTHER KING LOVED STAR TREK

It’s not easy to imagine King having the time or inclination to sit down and watch primetime sci-fi on television, but according to actress Nichelle Nichols, King and his family made an exception for Star Trek.

In 1967, the actress met King, who told her he was a big fan and urged her to reconsider her decision to leave the show to perform on Broadway.

“My family are your greatest fans,” Nichols recalled King telling her, and said he continued with, “As a matter of fact, this is the only show on television that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to watch, to stay up and watch because it’s on past their bedtime.”

Nichols’s character of Lt. Uhura, he said, was important because she was a strong, professional black woman. If Nichols left, King noted, the character could be replaced by anyone, since “[Uhura] is not a black role. And it’s not a female role.”


8. MLK SPENT HIS WEDDING NIGHT IN A FUNERAL PARLOR.

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Martin Luther King, Jr’s wife, Coretta Scott King, and their four children Yolanda (8), Martin Luther King III (6), Dexter (3) and Bernice (11 months), in February 1964. MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES

When King married his wife, Coretta Scott, in her father’s backyard in 1953, there was virtually no hotel in Marion, Alabama that would welcome a newlywed black couple.

A friend of Coretta’s happened to be an undertaker and invited the Kings to stay at one of the guest rooms at his funeral parlor.


9. MLK ON THE $5 BILL?

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The Martin Luther King Jr. monument in Washington, D.C.

RON COGSWELL, FLICKR // CC BY 2.0

In 2016, the U.S. Treasury announced plans to overhaul major denominations of currency beginning in 2020. Along with Harriet Tubman adorning the $20 bill, the plan called for the reverse side of the $5 Lincoln-stamped bill to commemorate “historic events that occurred at the Lincoln Memorial” including King’s famous 1963 speech.


10. ONE OF MARTIN LUTHER KING’S VOLUNTEERS WALKED AWAY WITH A PIECE OF HISTORY.

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Over 200,000 people gather around the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., where the 1963 civil rights March on Washington ended with Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. KURT SEVERIN/GETTY IMAGES

King’s 1963 oration from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, known as the “I Have a Dream” speech, will always be remembered as one of the most provocative public addresses ever given.

George Raveling, who was 26 at the time, had volunteered to help King and his team during the event.

When it was over, Raveling sheepishly asked King for the copy of the three-page speech.

King handed it over without hesitation; Raveling kept it for the next 20 years before he fully understood its historical significance and removed it from the book he had been storing it in.

He’s turned down offers of up to $3.5 million, insisting that the document will remain in his family—always noting that the most famous passage, where King details his dream of a united nation, isn’t on the sheets. It was improvised.

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