10 Martin Luther King Jr Facts About the Famous Civil Rights Leader

The famed Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr changed the course of U.S. history and was a dedicated advocate of racial equality who's work was paramount in helping to dismantle racial segregation in the U.S.

His commitment to achieving social justice and stern defense of nonviolent measures allowed the Civil Rights leader to mobilise the North American public in defense of his cause. This resulted in legislative changes which provided the Black community with greater equality and political agency.

To commemorate Martin Luther King Jr Day, Newsweek has collected a number of facts about the pioneering Civil Rights leader.

1) His birth name was Michael, not Martin Luther

Born on January 15 1929, Martin Luther King Jr's given name was Michael King Jr, named after his father. The name change came about following a trip his father took to Germany in 1934, where he learned about and was deeply influenced by German Protestant religious leader Martin Luther. His father therefore adopted the name for both himself and his young son. However, King Jr did not officially change his name until July 1957, aged 28.

2) Martin Luther King Jr allegedly attempted suicide aged only 12

In May 1941, Martin Luther King Jr's maternal grandmother Jennie Williams died of a heart attack. At the time of her death, King Jr was only 12 years old and was out watching a local parade, despite being instructed not to do so by his parents. His grandmother's passing deeply scarred the young King Jr, who jumped out of a window of the family's second-story home in an alleged suicide attempt.

3) He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964

The Civil Rights leader was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 "for his non-violent struggle for civil rights for the Afro-American population." King Jr was just 35 when he won, becoming the prestigious award's youngest recipient at the time. Along with his prize he was given a check for $54,123 which he donated to numerous organizations involved in the fight for civil rights.

4) King Jr started college when he was 15

King Jr attended Booker T. Washington High School, where he excelled and was a popular student. In fact, he skipped grades nine and 11 and went on to enrol at Morehouse College in 1944, aged just 15. Despite coming from a deeply religious family, he did not originally intend to follow the family path. Nonetheless, after taking a Bible class in his junior year, King Jr opted to pursue a career in the ministry. He was ordained before completing his sociology degree and graduating college.

5) The Kennedy brothers released him from jail

While at a sit-in in Georgia In 1960, King Jr was arrested for an old traffic charge. He was detained for a speeding offence that dated back to 1954, where he was stopped for driving at 30pmh in a 25mph zone. As a result, King Jr was sentenced to four months in a Georgia prison. The news of his detention reached Sen. John F. Kennedy's team while he was on the presidential campaign. The would-be President called King Jr's wife, Corretta Scott King, to express solidarity, while his brother Robert rang and reproached the judge in King Jr's case. He was released shortly after.

6) King Jr was placed behind bars almost 30 times

The Civil Rights leader was imprisoned on 29 different occasions, according to the King Center. He was detained for his acts of civil disobedience and resistance, often on bogus charges.

7) King Jr survived an assassination attempt a decade before his death

On September 20, 1958, while at a book signing event in Harlem's Blumstein's department store, King Jr had a sudden brush with death. The Civil Rights leader was approached by a woman named Izola Ware Curry who told him: "I've been looking for you for five years". She then stabbed King Jr in the chest with a seven-inch letter opener. He underwent emergency surgery and spent weeks recovering in hospital. King Jr was lucky to escape death, as the tip of the blade was nestled alongside his aorta and was told by doctors that even a single sneeze could have punctured his aorta and resulted in his death.

Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, D.C.
Martin Luther King Jr. addresses crowds at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C., where he gave his 'I Have A Dream' speech. Central Press/Getty Images

8) King Jr's mother was also killed by a gunshot

On June 1974, as King Jr's mother Alberta Williams played the organ at a service at the Ebenezer Baptist Church she was struck down by a bullet. A man named Marcus Wayne Chenault Jr had risen from the pews wielding two pistols and opened fire, killing King Jr's mother. The gunman claimed he had been given divine instructions to kill King Jr's father, who was also at the service, but killed his mother as she was closer. One other church-goer was killed. Chenault was imprisoned and sentenced with the death penalty, which was later changed to life imprisonment partly due to the King family's objection of capital punishment.

9) King Jr is the only non-President who's birthday is a National Holiday

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan approved a bill to establish a federal holiday in honour of the Civil Rights leader. The only other North Americans to have their birthday celebrated as a national holiday are former presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Martin Luther King Jr Day was first celebrated in 1986 and falls on the third Monday in January, close to King's birthday on January 15th.

10) Almost 1,000 streets in the U.S. are named after MLK

According to a study conducted by The Conversation and GeoJournal, almost 1,000 streets across the country have been named in honour of the Civil Rights leader. The study found there are currently 955 U.S. streets named after King Jr Streets in 41 states as well as Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico have been named after the Civil Rights leader.