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John Homan: How much do we really know about Martin Luther King Jr.?

By John D. Homan
Managing editor
updated: 1/12/2018 12:55 PM

I'm sad to say that I have only limited knowledge of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His birthday is this coming Monday, Jan. 15. Here's what little I did know about this great man:

He was a Baptist preacher and social activist during the late 1950s and turbulent 1960s; he fought for civil rights for all Americans; he believed in civil disobedience; he delivered the "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial; he was assassinated by James Earl Ray in 1968 in Memphis. Had he lived, he would be 89 Monday.

Pull back the curtain, however, and there is so much more to know.

• King's birth name was Michael. Because his father, a pastor, traveled to Germany and became inspired by Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther, the elder King changed his own name, as well as that of his 5-year-old son.

• King entered college at 15. A gifted student, he skipped grades 9 and 12 in high school before enrolling in 1944 at Morehouse College, his father and maternal grandfather's alma mater. King got a degree in sociology, his doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University and a divinity degree from Pennsylvania's Crozer Theological Seminary.

• King was jailed nearly 30 times -- and once in Montgomery, Alabama for driving 30 mph in a 25 mph zone.

• King narrowly escaped an assassination attempt a decade before his death. In September 1958, he was in Harlem signing copies of his new book, "Stride Toward Freedom," in Blumstein's Department Store when he was approached by Izola Ware Curry, who plunged a seven-inch letter opener into his chest. The tip of the blade came to rest alongside his aorta. Surgeons later told King one sneeze could have punctured the aorta and killed him. From his hospital bed, King issued a statement saying he felt no ill will toward his mentally ill attacker.

• King's last public speech foretold his death. He had come to Memphis in April 1968 to support the strike of the city's black garbage workers, and in a speech on the night before his assassination, he told an audience at Mason Temple Church:

"Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. But I'm not concerned about that now ... I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.

"And I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

• King's family did not believe James Earl Ray acted alone. Ray initially pleaded guilty to the assassination and then later recanted. King's wife, Coretta, believed the Mafia and local, state and federal government agencies were involved.

• King's mother was also slain by a bullet. On June 30, 1974, 69-year-old Alberta Williams King was playing the organ inside Ebenezer Baptist Church, when Marcus Wayne Chenault, Jr. rose from the front pew, drew two pistols and began to fire shots. One of the bullets struck and killed Mrs. King.

• George Washington is the only other American to have had his birthday observed as a national holiday.