5 Things You Might Not Have Known About Martin Luther King Jr.

While the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. is recognized as a holiday in January, this week we see the anniversary of a much less happy day. 49 years ago, on April 4, 1968, King was killed by a sniper in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was helping to support a strike by the sanitation workers of the city.

The man charged for that crime is named James Earl Ray. There are still some questions about that though, but we’ll get into them later. To understand the impact of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the many other brave civil rights activists of the era, we just need to look at how much the world has changed. In his “Remarks on Signing the Bill Making the Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., a National Holiday ”, Ronald Reagan outlined the world before MLK:

Martin Luther King was born in 1929 in an America where, because of the color of their skin, nearly 1 in 10 lived lives that were separate and unequal. Most black Americans were taught in segregated schools. Across the country, too many could find only poor jobs, toiling for low wages. They were refused entry into hotels and restaurants, made to use separate facilities. In a nation that proclaimed liberty and justice for all, too many black Americans were living with neither.”

While our journey towards liberty and justice for all still has quite a way to go, the world is a very different place than it was in 1929, or even in the 60s. MLK dreamed of a world where freedom reigned and was equally available to everyone, regardless of race, creed, or skin color.

When it comes to great historical figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. we tend to all know certain parts of their story. For MLK, stories like the ‘I Have a Dream‘ speech are embedded in our popular consciousness, but there is far more to his life than that. Here are five things you might not have known about Martin Luther King, Jr., his life, and the legacy he started.

1. He is the only private U.S. citizen whose birthday is a national holiday

President Ronald Regan signs the MLK Day legislation on November 2, 1983. Photo: U.S. National Archives

Martin Luther King, Jr. and George Washington are the only two Americans whose birthdays are national holidays, and MLK is the only private citizen to be so honoured. The birthday of Martin Luther King had a long and rocky route to becoming a national holiday. The idea was first proposed four days after his death by Representative John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan.

Despite widespread popular support and occasional backing from elected officials, the bill to make his birthday a holiday languished until the 1980s. A plan to generate popular support for the holiday gave it the final push it needed, gaining six million signatures on a petition to make the day a holiday.

Stevie Wonder even dedicated his song Happy Birthday in honor of the day becoming a national holiday. The rush of support finally succeeded. President Ronald Reagan signed the bill that made Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday on November 2, 1983. The first Martin Luther King day was celebrated in 1986.

2. King’s assassination location is now a museum

The Lorraine Motel. A white wreath on the second floor walkway marks the approximate location where King was standing when he was shot. Image: WikiCommons

The Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated, and some of the surrounding buildings, was purchased in the 1980s and converted into the National Civil Rights Museum.

The museum is a Smithsonian affiliate and tells the story of the Civil Rights Era of America. The Lorraine Motel itself is partly preserved as part of the complex. The white wreath in the photo shows the approximate location of Martin Luther King when he was shot.

3. Not only was he smart, he had the paperwork to prove it

King with his Nobel Prize in 1964. Image: WikiCommons

While widely remembered for his public speaking ability, King was also recognized for his achievements in several other areas. As a youth, he skipped two grades in high school and received early college admission to Morehouse College at age 15.

And he didn’t stop there—King graduated with a sociology degree, and went on to Crozer Theological Seminary where he was both the class president and the class valedictorian. He then proceeded to earn his PhD by age 25. Today, only 1.68% of Americans over age 25 have a PhD, so King definitely stood out in the field of learning. His achievements didn’t stop there.

He was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and received an honorary doctorate in civil law from Newcastle University in the UK. And there’s still more! In 1964 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in fighting racial inequality with nonviolence. At the time, he was the youngest person to have received that prize (though that record is now held by Malala Yousafzai).

4. James Earl Ray was the most wanted man in America

James Earl Ray fled for Toronto, Canada, and London, England, after King’s murder.

While on the run from the largest manhunt in history (at the time), James Earl Ray hid in Toronto, Canada for nearly a month. Ray believed that his roommate at the time had framed him for the crime, so he fled to Canada, renting boarding rooms in the Ossington Ave. and Dundas St. West area for almost a month as he worked to obtain a fake ID in the form of a birth certificate and Canadian passport.

He stole the identities of local individuals, and with multiple identities he even acted as witness on his own passport. Ray was later caught in London, England after he fled Toronto.

5. Ray: cold-blooded killer or patsy?

James Earl Ray is lead from court after pleading guilty to the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Many people feel that James Earl Ray was a patsy for a larger conspiracy. The surprising part is that King’s family are supporters of this theory.

Ray originally confessed to the murder of King, but later recanted the confession saying that he had been pressured to falsely make the original statements. He further claimed to have fled Memphis after hearing police reports that they were looking for a man of his description. He had a criminal record so he thought he might be framed for the crime, but maintained that he was innocent.

In 1999, the King family filed a civil lawsuit against “Loyd Jowers and unnamed co-conspirators” for their part in the death of King. Loyd came forward in 1993 alleging that he was part of a conspiracy to kill Martin Luther King.

The jury at the trial concluded that King was indeed a victim of assassination resulting from a conspiracy involving the Memphis police as well as federal agencies, however there was some criticism of how the trial was run. The King family won a $100 civil judgement (they chose the token amount to show they were not doing this for monetary compensation), and spoke about their thoughts on the trial in a post-trial press conference.

Investigations by the Justice Department after the King v. Jowers trial did not support the court’s conclusions that Jowers and various government agencies participated in the assassination of King. However, through his support of unions and civil disobedience, opposition to the Vietnam War, and suspected interaction with Communists, King was definitely catching the attention of various government agencies.

When you consider the “suicide letter” that the FBI sent King, the sealed audio records from the wiretaps the government had on King, the various conflicting witness testimonies, and alternate confessions for killers… well there certainly are a lot of questions still left unanswered about who might have been involved in the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Image: Wikimedia

While the day of Martin Luther King’s death is not a holiday, we still invite you to spend a few minutes pondering the life of one of the greatest civil rights leaders of the 20th century.

We have come a long way but there is still further to go. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. from his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech:

“And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”

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Alex Conde

Alex Conde is a writer and someone who is fascinated by this crazy world we live in. He believes we're surrounded by amazing stories (and a lot of interesting shit), and as a writer he has the pleasure of researching those stories and telling them so that other people can appreciate them as well.