Martin Luther King, Jr. — The Man You Didn't Know
Most people already know that Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most influential figures in the U.S. Civil Rights movement. You know that he was an accomplished and groundbreaking activist, leader, and orator who believed in enacting change through nonviolence and civil disobedience. You’ve probably even heard snippets of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. But this year, as we celebrate MLK Day, let’s remember some of the lesser-known facts about his life and the ways in which he pushed the Civil Rights movement forward. Here are our six favorite Martin Luther King, Jr. accomplishments you probably didn’t know about.
1. He Attended College at the Age of 15
King was a gifted student. Though he was expelled from the first grade (he was five years old, which was too young per the school’s entry requirements), King ended up skipping two grades because of his exceptional academic performance. In 1944, when he was only 15 years old, he followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps by enrolling in Morehouse College, where he graduated with a sociology degree. Later in life, King received nearly 50 honorary degrees from academic institutions around the country.
2. He Never Thought He’d Become a Pastor
Though King eventually earned a divinity degree from Pennsylvania’s Crozer Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Boston University, he wasn’t always keen on a life of faith. Before he became a reverend, King was naturally curious and even doubtful about religion, sometimes shocking his Sunday school class with his questions. It wasn’t until a Bible course he took in college, taught by Dr. George D. Kelsey, that he decided to become ordained as a minister.
3. He Didn’t Think He’d Become a Civil Rights Leader, Either
When King was 26 years old, he was a pastor in Montgomery, Ala. with one year of preaching under his belt. At the time, he thought he’d become a professor. But in December of that same year (1955), Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman on a bus, and the direction of King’s life pivoted. In the days that followed Parks’s arrest, King opened up his church’s basement to hold a mass meeting for boycott organizers. During their meeting, they elected him to be the group’s president after no one else volunteered for the role. On that same night, he wrote his first public speech in fifteen minutes and went from an unknown activist to the face of the Civil Rights movement for the remaining 12 years of his life.
4. He Won a Grammy Award in Addition to the Nobel Prize
King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. In fact, he’s still the youngest man to have ever won it — at the time, he was only 35 years old. Along with the prize, he received 54,000 dollars (worth about 453,302 dollars today), which he funneled right back into the Civil Rights movement. Six years later, King won a Grammy Award. Though he’d been nominated in 1963 and 1968, it wasn’t until 1970 when his speech “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam” won for Best Spoken Word Recording. You can listen to it here.
5. MLK Day Is a “Day On, Not Off”
In addition to George Washington, King is the only other American whose birthday we celebrate as a national holiday. Though most people think of it as a day off, the holiday was actually implemented as a “day on, not off” — in other words, a day of service when all Americans can volunteer to improve their communities. In addition to delivering care packages to the homeless, donating to nonprofits, and supporting local Black-owned businesses, you can also read or listen to some of King’s speeches and reflect on ways to apply his wisdom into your own life. Visit Stanford’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute to browse a collection of his papers, sermons, and speeches.