On Monday, Jan. 17, the U.S. observes the holiday honoring the life and achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For many people, Dr. King is the iconic leader of the civil rights movement who brilliantly articulated the aspirations of Black Americans to be treated as full-class citizens in their country.
Yet, there are many aspects to Dr. King’s life that might not be familiar to many people. And, indeed, some of these aspects might come as a surprise. To celebrate the unexpected side of his life, here are the 10 weirdest facts in the life of Dr. King.
What’s In A Name: Before he was Martin Luther King Jr., he was born Michael King Jr. in 1929. His father, Michael King Sr., was the pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, and in 1934 the elder King attended the Baptist World Alliance conference in the German capital of Berlin. While there, he decided to rename himself in honor of Martin Luther, the German monk who launched the Reformation.
Not only did the elder King legally change his name, but he also renamed his son. However, Dr. King did not revise his birth certificate with his new name until 1957, when he was 28 years old.
A First Taste Of Freedom: For his first 15 years, Dr. King grew up in the Jim Crow South and was witness to daily hardships suffered by the Black population.
In the summer of 1944, the 15-year-old King left the South for the first time and headed north to earn money by taking a summer job picking tobacco on a farm in Connecticut. For the young man, the experience was overwhelming – in his letters home, he marveled at being able to attend an integrated church, dine in an integrated restaurant and use public facilities that were not restricted by race.
“After that summer in Connecticut,” he later recalled, “it was a bitter feeling going back to segregation.”
Dr. King And The Rat Pack: In the early 1960s, Dr. King’s leadership position with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) made him a nationally prominent figure – and even Frank Sinatra was impressed with Dr. King’s mission of using nonviolence to dismember state-sanctioned segregation.
On Jan. 27, 1961, Sinatra brought his Rat Pack pals Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. to New York City’s Carnegie Hall for a fundraising benefit on behalf of the SCLC. Tony Bennett, Harry Belafonte, Buddy Hackett, Mahalia Jackson and Jan Murray also performed in an event billed as a “Tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.” The audience at the 2,760-seat Carnegie Hall were treated to a show running an astonishing four hours and 40 minutes, and the fundraiser aspect of the event hauled in more than $50,000, which is roughly $468,000 in today’s money.
Dr. King, Movie Star?: Sinatra was not Dr. King’s only Hollywood admirer. In 1962, director-producer Otto Preminger approached Dr. King with the offer to play the role of a U.S. senator in his film adaptation of Allen Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Advise & Consent.”
Preminger’s offer was fairly progressive – there had not been a Black senator since Blanche Kelso Bruce completed his term in 1881, nor would there be one until Massachusetts elected Edward Brooke in 1966. King reportedly gave serious consideration to Preminger’s invitation, but turned it down out of concern that his participation would trivialize the mission of the SCLC.
Dr. King, IP Warrior: The “I Have a Dream” address delivered by Dr. King on August 28, 1963, during the March on Washington is perhaps the most famous American speech of the 20th century. But after it was delivered, Dr. King found himself fighting off bootleggers who tried to illegally profit from his presentation.
Shortly after the March on Washington, the companies Mister Maestro Inc. and Twentieth Century Fox Records Company produced a record album of the speech and distributed it for sale. But the companies never consulted with Dr. King, who had registered a copyright on the final text of the delivered speech. Dr. King successfully sued, and the companies were forced to withdraw their album from sale.
The copyright protection on the speech has proven to be somewhat complicated. Under U.S. copyright laws, a fair use exception can be claimed only when portions of a public speech are republished under “bono fide news reporting.” This is why most documentaries and news coverage relating to Dr. King’s speech provide the briefest of excerpts from the “I Have a Dream” section and not the full 16-minute address.
Dr. King And The Grammy Awards: While he successfully pulled bootleg recordings out of circulation, Dr. King also gave his permission to encapsulate the March on Washington in a spoken-word recording called “We Shall Overcome.” This record received a 1963 Grammy Award nomination for Best Spoken Word Recording.
Dr. King would receive two additional Grammy nominations posthumously in the same category, for “I Have a Dream” in 1968 and “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam” in 1970 – he won the latter award, which is somewhat ironic because his opposition to the Vietnam War was unpopular in his lifetime and brought about criticism from many of his longtime supporters.
Meeting Malcolm X By Accident: Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X had little patience in Dr. King’s nonviolent approach to ending racial discrimination, even going so far as to call him a “20th century Uncle Tom” for what he perceived as Dr. King’s accommodating attitude. For his part, Dr. King was appalled by Malcolm’s “any means necessary” agitation for equality, dubbing it “fiery, demagogic oratory … [that] can reap nothing but grief.”
Dr. King ignored an invitation to participate in a July 1963 rally in Harlem and Malcolm derided the March on Washington as the “farce on Washington.” The two men would only cross paths once, and it was an unintentional meeting.
On March 25, 1964, Dr. King and Malcolm arrived separately on Capitol Hill to watch a Senate hearing on what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Dr. King held a press conference after the hearing, and Malcolm walked by, initially unaware of Dr. King’s presence. The two men shook hands and exchanged pleasantries while the media photographed them, but their encounter only lasted a few minutes, and they would never cross paths again.
Dr. King On Jazz: One of the most unexpected invitations that Dr. King ever received was from the organizers of the inaugural Berlin Jazz Festival, who invited Dr. King to submit an essay for the program that would be distributed during the September 1964 event.
Dr. King penned “On the Importance of Jazz,” which offered a distinctive view of how jazz music mirrored both the Black American struggle for freedom and equality, and the universal need “to love and be loved.”
“Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music,” he wrote. “It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.”
Dr. King And The X-Rated Movie: In 1966, Dr. King was visiting Stockholm when he was interviewed by Swedish filmmaker Vilgot Sjöman about the civil rights movement. But Sjöman did not incorporate the footage into a documentary – instead, he used it in a bizarre avant-garde production called “I Am Curious (Yellow),” which focused on a young female activist who experiences strange dreams full of sex and violence.
“I Am Curious (Yellow)” premiered in Sweden in October 1967 – Dr. King never saw the finished film, which was released in the U.S. in 1969, the year after his assassination. The film faced censorship challenges in Massachusetts for its graphic sexual content. The film’s distributor triumphed in court and despite receiving an X-rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, “I Am Curious (Yellow)” became one of the top-grossing films of 1969.
Dr. King’s Holiday And Wall Street: After Martin Luther King Jr. Day was first observed as a national holiday in 1986, the Federal Reserve, banks and bond markets closed in observance. But the Wall Street exchanges only acknowledged the day by interrupting trading at noon for a minute of silence – for them, it was business as usual.
Harry C. Alford, president and chief executive of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, complained to the Wall Street Journal that it was “without surprise that the New York Stock Exchange” ignored the holiday because “the strongest resistance to equality and diversity has always come from the economic entities.”
In 1997, Rev. Jesse Jackson opened a Wall Street office of his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition with the goal of getting the stock exchanges to observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Jackson coordinated a three-day conference on race and economics called the Wall Street Project that coincided with the 1998 holiday – President Bill Clinton, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and New York real estate executive Donald Trump were among the attendees at the event.
The NYSE and Nasdaq accommodated the Wall Street Project by closing for the first time since the holiday’s establishment. Now, the stock market closes every year to commemorate Dr. King’s legacy.
Photo: Z Rainey / Pixabay
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