On this day in 1968, Martin Luther King Jnr. (January 15, 1929–April 4, 1968), an American Baptist minister and activist who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement in the United States from 1954 through 1968, was fatally shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee and was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where he later died.
King was a prominent leader of the Civil Rights Movement and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was known for his use of nonviolence and civil disobedience. His last words were to musician Ben Branch, who was scheduled to perform that night at a planned event.
King said, “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”
Below are some interesting facts you did not know about the revered Reverend and activist:
Early life and Education
1. Martin Luther King was born Michael Lewis King. His father changed his own name to Martin Luther, after the German preacher and reformist, and he renamed his son the same.
2. King suffered from depression throughout much of his life. As a child, he befriended a white boy whose father owned a business near his family’s home. When the boys were six, they started school: King had to attend a school for African Americans and the other boy went to one for whites. King lost his friend because the child’s father no longer wanted the boys to play together.
3. At the age of 12, King blamed himself for his grandmother’s death and attempted suicide by jumping out of a second-story window but he survived.
4. King was a precocious child. He skipped both the ninth and the twelfth grade, entering college when he was only fifteen. At 19, he received a degree in sociology and earned a PhD in theology seven years later at 26. He eventually garnered another fifty or so honorary degrees from various colleges and universities around the country before his death at the age of 39.
5. Martin Luther King was a life-long smoker.
6. King was jailed 29 times, charged with everything from civil disobedience to driving five miles over the speed limit.
7. On October 14, 1964, King became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, until Malala Yousafzai in 2014, which was awarded to him for leading nonviolent resistance to racial prejudice in the U.S. He donated all $54,123 of the prize money to the civil rights movement.
8. King became romantically involved with the white daughter of an immigrant German woman. He planned to marry her, but friends advised against it, saying that an interracial marriage would provoke animosity from both blacks and whites. King broke off the relationship after six months. He never recovered.
9. King was 24 and his wife was 26 when they got married. They had four children together. Three are still alive as at April 2018.
Career and Activism
10. In 1957, King and other civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He led the SCLC until his death.
11. King survived an assassination attempt in 1958 after being stabbed in the chest by a deranged woman. He spent several weeks in surgery.
12. In 1963, the FBI, under written directive from Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, tapped King’s telephone line suspecting he was a Communist.
13. King organized and led marches for blacks’ right to vote, desegregation, labor rights, and other basic civil rights. Most of these rights were successfully enacted into the law of the United States with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
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14. In the 1963 March on Washington, King delivered a 17-minute speech, later known as “I Have a Dream”. It came to be regarded as one of the finest speeches in the history of American oratory.
15. On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his death—King delivered a speech titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” He spoke strongly against the U.S.’s role in the war, arguing that the U.S. was in Vietnam “to occupy it as an American colony” and calling the U.S. government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop…And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.
16. Martin Luther King is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using the tactics of nonviolence and civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs and inspired by the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi.
17. On April 4, 1968, King was fatally shot by James Earl Ray at 6:01 p.m. The bullet entered through his right cheek, smashing his jaw, then traveled down his spinal cord before lodging in his shoulder. He died at the hospital an hour later at 7:05 p.m.
18. President Lyndon B. Johnson declared April 7, 1968 a national day of mourning for the civil rights leader.
19. King made a request that at his funeral no mention of his awards and honors be made, but that it be said that he tried to “feed the hungry“, “clothe the naked“, “be right on the [Vietnam] war question“, and “love and serve humanity.“
20. King’s favourite hymn was “Take My Hand, Precious Lord“. It was sung at his funeral.
Legacy and Aftermath
21. On January 17, 2000, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was officially observed in all fifty U.S. states.
22. King’s mother, Alberta Williams King, was also shot and killed at the age of 69.
23. As a Christian minister, King’s main influence was Jesus Christ and the Christian gospels. His faith was strongly based in Jesus’ commandment of loving your neighbor as yourself, loving God above all, and loving your enemies, praying for them and blessing them.
24. King’s autopsy revealed that stress had taken a major toll on his body. Despite being just 39 at the time of his death, one of the doctors noted that he had “the heart of a 60-year-old”.
25. In 1977, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest civilian award of the United States of America) was posthumously awarded to King by President Jimmy Carter.
Ayomide Akinbode holds a degree in Chemistry but has a passion for History and Classics. When he is not writing, he’s either sleeping or playing Scrabble.