S. E. Williams
Many in the world agree, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did his life’s work well. Stories of his uncompromising commitment to unconditional love are well documented for posterity as are the pivotal moments of his extraordinary life.
And yet, “He was an average and ordinary man, called by a God, in whom he had deep and abiding faith, to perform extraordinary deeds,” his oldest and only surviving sibling, Christine King Ferris, told Ebony Magazine during a 1986 interview.
There are facts, experiences, little known details in the Civil Rights leader’s life that serve as testaments to his sister’s comment beginning with the civil rights leader’s iconic name.
Born January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King Jr. was in fact named Michael at birth after his father; however, when the elder King travelled to Germany in 1934, he was greatly impressed by the mission of the Protestant Reformation leader, Martin Luther. As a result, when King returned to America he changed his name as well as the name of his five year old son to Martin Luther, in honor of the protestant activist. There are some reports, however, that at times, the elder King claimed his son’s name was listed as Michael on his birth certificate in error. Regardless, throughout King’s life, members of the King family continued to call him Mike or ML.
Probably one of the early and little known events that helped shape King’s life occurred in 1941. Reportedly, he attended a parade without his parent’s permission and while he was there, his maternal grandmother had a massive heart attack and died. King was devastated and blamed himself for her death.
According to many, he was heavily overwhelmed with guilt. Shortly after her death, the future civil rights leader purportedly fell from the second story window of their home—some believed it was an attempt at suicide. Although family members insisted it was an accident; years later when speaking about the incident his father said, “He cried off and on for several days afterward and was unable to sleep at night.”
In later years, King continued to struggle with bouts of depression usually the result of issues related to the civil rights movement. Once, reflecting on his grandmother’s death he said, “It was after this incident for the first time that I talked at any length on the doctrine of immortality. My parents attempted to explain it to me and I was assured that my grandmother still lived.”
Although King’s early years were marked with this episode of grief, he was a gifted and talented student. As a result, he skipped both the ninth and twelfth grades and entered Morehouse College at the early age of 15 years.
Although Martin was a gifted high school student most will be surprised to learn that during his educational career at Morehouse College he earned only one A. He primarily earned Bs or passed classes that only gave pass/fail grades.
What might be even more surprising about his college years is while earning his divinity degree King actually received a C in public speaking-an average grade for someone destined to become one of the greatest orators in the history of the world.
Another interesting fact about his seminary years focused around his time at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. There, he fell in love with a German cafeteria employee. His classmates talked him out of pursuing her for two main reasons—firstly, because his father would have disapproved of an interracial relationship and also because he expected the younger King to marry someone of status. It was reported the elder King was not even enthusiastic about his son’s marriage to Coretta Scott.
King has been called the Prince of Peace and yet during the 1950’s as his life, the life of his wife and new born daughter were continuously threatened because of his work in relation to bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, he applied for a gun permit. King realized, however, he could not advocate non violence and at the same time, prepare for armed self-defense. Interestingly, Alabama refused his application.
King appeared to live his life in a hurry, as if he knew his stay on earth would be brief. Beginning in 1957 until his untimely demise in 1968, he gave over 2,500 speeches, travelled more than six million miles, was arrested at least 30 times, wrote five books and published numerous articles. Yes, King appeared to live his life in a hurry like the marked man he truly was.
After delivering his historic and memorable “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington, the FBI wrote, “In the light of King’s powerful demagogic speech yesterday, he stands head and shoulders above all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses of Negroes. We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future . . . from the standpoint of Communism, the Negro and national security.”
Although he was marked by the FBI as the most dangerous Negro in the nation, he was a preacher with three degrees who maintained the common touch and managed to also establish quite a reputation as a pool shark. Playing pool was one of the ways he reached out to some members of the Black community—using pool to reach those who did not come to church to hear his messages.
Despite his enduring impact on America and the world both then and now, King died with barely any financial assets. His family was left with hardly any benefits from his books, speaking engagements, or ministry. He never set anything aside for his children’s education. He had even donated the 54 plus thousand dollars in Nobel Prize award money to the movement.
King gave everything to the movement including his health and longevity. When he was murdered at the age of 39 his autopsy report revealed the heart of a 60 year old–doctors believed it was the result of ongoing stress.
At least 40 American states have streets named in honor of King—there are over 900 streets named in his honor world-wide.
Fortunate for the world, King left hundreds of thousands of documents about his life and legacy in sermons, letters, speeches and sadly, federal surveillance.
Although much is known about King the man, the visionary, the activist, the drum major for peace, there are still a good number of FBI surveillance documents that will remain sealed in the National Archives until 2027.
Some records of his life may be sealed from view but his legacy lives openly in the hearts and minds of those whose lives he changed, even among the many who were yet to be born when King walked the earth. This is clearly evidenced in the passionate movement of Black Lives Matter and other organizations that continue to work for peace and justice here in America and around the world in 2016. Yes, despite set-backs and disappointments, the movement continues .
Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King Jr. Your dream lives in me.