Stuff You Should Know: Martin Luther King, Jr.

mlkShow me a person who doesn’t love Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and I’ll show you a cross eyed albino who was born with backwards feet. I’m not sure what those two people would have to do with each other, but I’m pretty sure they’re both rare. Because outside of that one time I traveled back in time and space to visit Alabama in the early 1960s, I’ve never met a real-life person so blatantly racist that they hated Martin Luther King.

But here’s the thing about MLK: in addition to being great, good, amazing, positive adjectives galore, he also had a little mystery about him. Which makes him all the more interesting, right? So here are 10 things you might not have known about the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

1. “Martin Luther King, Jr.” Was an Alias!

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Much like Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus, MLK didn’t start out with the name we know him by. He was actually born Michael King, Jr. But unlike Miley and Gaga, he didn’t change his name for fame-snatching purposes. He changed it after his dad visited Germany with other Baptist preachers and developed a hearty admiration for the Protestant reformer Martin Luther. King, Sr. came home and changed both of their names, although it was never actually done legally. SHENANIGANS!

2. MLK was So Smart that He Skipped Two Grades!

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The ninth and the twelfth, to be precise. And because he skipped two whole grades, he entered college at age 15, while his peers were still drudging through tenth grade. In other words, at an age when most of us had barely figured out what was going on downstairs, MLK was already on a college campus setting his life’s course. In fact, he graduated college at age 19, wrapped up seminary at age 21 and by age 26 he was done with his doctorate after turning in a dissertation titled “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.”

3. The Dissertation Mentioned Above was Plagiarized!

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Word? Word. In the 1980s, Dr. King’s widow donated his papers to Stanford University. While going through them, researchers discovered that blocks of his dissertation had been stolen from another student who turned in a similar dissertation three years earlier. His name was Jack Boozer. I’m only mentioning that because it’s a killer name.

So once Stanford discovered King’s dissertation was plagiarized, the school that gave Dr. King his doctorate had to make a tough call: Should they revoke the Ph.D. they once gave to the now martyred Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr? Long story short – they didn’t. The investigation decided, yes, portions of the dissertation were stolen. But the overall academic contribution was still valid.

They probably just realized how hard it would be to get everyone to use air quotes around the “Dr.” part of Dr. Martin Luther King.

4. The Gandhi Connection

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If we were to do the Kevin Bacon game to find the degrees of separation between MLK and Gandhi, it would be a very short game. Like, “one-Mississippi,” short. King’s greatest influence was his mentor, Howard Thurman, and Thurman actually met Mohandas Gandhi in India while conducting his his missionary work.

But the funner game would be finding the degrees of separation between MLK and Kevin Bacon.

5. It’s Three!

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  • Martin Luther King let Jesse Jackson into his inner circle in 1965.
  • Jesse Jackson hosted Saturday Night Live in 1984. Included in the cast was Martin Short.
  • Martin Short had a cameo role in The Big Picture with Kevin Bacon.

Back on track…

6. MLK was Once Stabbed in the Chest!

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And he lived to tell the tale! Ten whole years before his actual assassination, a crazy lady named Izola Curry stabbed King in the chest with a letter opener at a book signing. And just because it was a letter opener doesn’t mean it wasn’t serious business, either. Dr. King spent three hours on a surgeon’s table as doctors removed the bloody blade from his chest. And while recovering he offered forgiveness to his potential assassin, and encouraged her to get the help “she apparently needs if she is to become a free and constructive member of society.”

Now don’t you feel like a dipwad for cutting off a guy just because he had a “Hey Barack, I’m BAROKE!’ bumper sticker?

7. MLK Was Wiretapped by the Kennedys!

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Even though we usually put MLK and JFK in the same happy basket of progressive, right minded goodness, the two weren’t actually the best buds that history has made them out to be. The problem was that King’s main organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, may or may not have had Communists on their rolls, which was a HUGE deal, since we were still in the midst of the whole “Kill the Commies Now” era in US history.

So Robert Kennedy asked MLK to break up with his SCLC girlfriend, because he was afraid the group might hurt the chances of the Civil Rights agenda passing. And King, being the faithful boyfriend that he was, refused. So Kennedy authorized the FBI to wiretap his phones to keep tabs on him.

But guess what? It turns out the Justice Department might have been on to something.

8. MLK Kind of had Socialist Sympathies!

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Kind of! By the mid-60s King was pretty set against America’s involvement in Vietnam, not just because thousands of young men were dying in the muck for a nebulously defined cause, but also because he thought the money spent on war-making would be better spent pulling up people out of poverty. In fact, King had serious problems with American capitalism as it stood:

“There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”

Wowza. But that wasn’t all. MLK also believed the descendants of slaves and other disadvantaged groups should be compensated by the US government to help close the economic gap between American haves and have-nots. Which was a pretty bold stance in that day. And considering the hullaballoo Obamacare has generated over the past few years, it’s still a bold one.

9. There was This One Thing King Had in Common With the Kennedys

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It wasn’t Marilyn Monroe, that we know of. But close.

While the FBI was listening in on MLK in the pursuit of definitive Commie blabber, they ended up hearing all sorts of sexy liaisons between King and ladies who were not his wife. Lots of liaisons. Knowing this information could damage King’s moral authority, they anonymously sent him cutesy little notes possibly encouraging him to commit suicide:

“King, there is only one thing left for you to do,” the letter concluded. “You know what it is … You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”

Which probably explains why…

10. Martin Luther King had the Heart of a Sixty-Year-Old Man When he Died

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And he was only thirty-nine when he was assassinated. So, just remember that the next time you’re ready to take on the racial prejudices and backwards legislation of the world’s most powerful country. YOUR HEART AND YOUR FBI WILL NOT APPRECIATE YOU FOR IT.

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