Facts You May Not Have Known About Martin Luther King Jr.

Sophie Hirsh - Author

Jan. 12 2024, Updated 4:09 p.m. ET

Martin Luther King Jr. poses in front of a bookcase in a black-and-white image.
Source: Getty Images

Civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. relaxes at home in May 1956 in Montgomery, Ala.

Every January, the U.S. observes Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in honor of the life of iconic civil rights activist and reverend.

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is best known for his powerful speeches, his leadership in the movement for racial equality, and his use of nonviolent civil disobedience as activism. That said, there is so much to learn about King — so in honor of the annual holiday, here are some interesting facts about Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth name was Michael.

Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, Ga. on Jan. 15, 1929 (and that's why the holiday is observed on the third Monday in January each year). However, that was not his name when he was born — his parents, Michael King and Alberta King, named him Michael King Jr. after his father.

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In the 1930s, as Martin King Sr.'s career as a minister grew, he chose to change his name to Martin Luther King Sr., choosing to honor Martin Luther, the famous German priest for whom Lutheranism was named. As reported by Biography, soon after, Michael Jr. decided to follow in his father's footsteps, and become Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King, and their baby in a black-and-white image.
Source: Getty Images

Martin Luther King, Jr. relaxes at home with his wife Coretta and first child Yolanda in May 1956 in Montgomery, Ala.

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MLK Jr. was arrested 29 times.

King practiced nonviolent protests — but he was still arrested for them. In fact, he was arrested — and subsequently taken to jail — a total of 29 times, as per History.

MLK Jr.'s mother was assassinated not long after he was.

King was infamously assassinated on April 4, 1968 — and six years later, his mother, Alberta King, was assassinated, too. On June 30, 1974, she was playing the “Lord’s Prayer” on the organ at church when a gunman entered the house of worship and opened fire, as reported by Essence. He killed Alberta, as well as Edward Boykin, the church deacon.

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Martin Luther King Jr. in a suit on an airport tarmac, in a black-and-white image.
Source: Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr. arriving at London Airport in October 1961.

King was brilliant, and skipped a few grades.

Obviously, King was an incredibly intelligent man — and his school teachers were aware of that, having let him skip both the the ninth and 11th grades of high school. He was then able to start college at just 15 years old, attending the HBCU Morehouse College, as reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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King has multiple degrees in the study of religion.

After graduating college, King studied divinity at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, from where he graduated as valedictorian. He then began his doctoral studies in systematic theology at Boston University, as per the King Institute, officially making him Dr. King.

King was the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner when he won the legendary award.

According to the National Constitution Center, when King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, at 35 years old, he was the youngest person to ever win the prize.

Now, Malala Yousafzai is the record holder for that honor, as she was just 17 in 2014, when she took home the Nobel Peace Prize. King would certainly be happy to lose that title to a fellow activist.

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Martin Luther King Jr. marching in Selma with many other Black activists
Source: Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr. Coretta Scott King lead a black voting rights march from Selma, Ala. to the state capital in Montgomery.

King was one of the most productive and distinguished leaders of a social justice movement in history.

King took inspiration from many great leaders and peacemakers before him — such as Mahatma Gandhi — eventually becoming just as prolific, productive, and well-known as them all.

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He led numerous protests, from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the Selma to Montgomery March. He made countless speeches to the public, including the world-famous "I Have a Dream" speech. His work helped get President Lyndon B. Johnson to sign the new Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law — for which King was in the room — as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And so much more.

King has written six books.

During his short and busy life, King found the time to write six books — as detailed by Insider, they include three books about the country's civil rights movement, as well as an autobiography, a collection of his sermons, and a compilation of his speeches.

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MLK Jr. was only 39 when he was assassinated.

King accomplished so much during his time on Earth, and he was only 39 years old when he was killed, and his legacy came to an end. With those 39 years, he did more for humanity than most people do with much longer lives — and his achievements continually inspire people to fight for justice during their time on this planet.

MLK Jr.'s four kids are continuing his legacy.

King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, had four children together: Martin Luther King III, Dexter, 61, Yolanda, and Bernice, as detailed by People.

Yolanda, born in 1955, passed away in 2007 at 51, after a career as an actress, and studying at Smith College and New York University.

Martin III, born in 1957, followed in his parents' footsteps, dedicating his time to human rights advocacy. He studied at Morehouse College, like his father.

Dexter, born in 1961, also studied at Morehouse College, and has worked in music. He also told People that he has been a vegetarian since 1987.

Bernice, born in 1963, studied at Spelman College and Emory University. She has encouraged protesters, especially int he Black Lives Matter movement, to use nonviolent tactics like her father did.

This article, originally published on Jan. 12, 2023, has been updated.

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