One could make the case that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the most significant American of the 20th century. He is only the third American whose birthday is commemorated as a federal holiday, a distinction not even granted Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, or FDR. Although King is one of U.S. history's most widely chronicled individuals, there are aspects of his life that are less well-known than the pivotal speeches, the campaigns against Jim Crow city halls from Montgomery in 1955 to Memphis in 1968, and the dalliances that for some, tainted his personal life. King was as complex a figure as exists in our social narrative. He was a man conflicted by his commitment to a movement into which he was drafted against his better judgement and by the overwhelming demands to fulfill the role of human rights spokesperson. He was a husband and father who belonged to a people and a revolution, and the nation's most prominent advocate of nonviolence at a time when violence burned on urban streets, college campuses and in Southeast Asia.
But here are some things about him that may surprise you.
1. King was born Michael, and loved ones called him Mike.
The future "drum major for justice" was born Michael Lewis King, and family members called him Mike. At some point after his father, the Rev. M.L. King Sr., changed his own name to Martin Luther, the oldest son's name was also changed. Neither man spoke or wrote publicly about the change. The elder MLK insisted that his oldest son's name was incorrectly recorded as Michael at birth, implying that the boy was named after reformer Martin Luther. Some accounts state that both names were changed in 1934 (when Junior was five) following the father's visit to Germany, when King Sr. developed an appreciation for the first Protestant. Other biographers state that King Jr. changed his name as a teenager so as to again be named after his preacher father. Whenever the appellation occurred, it was never filed legally. Like religious figures before him, such as the disciple Simon and the apostle Paul, King underwent a spiritual name change. Though his wife called him Martin, to his big sister Christine, and the rest of his immediate family he was forever Mike.
2. King wanted to marry a white cafeteria worker.
At Crozer Theological Seminary, in Chester, Pennsylvania during the late 1940s, King fell in love with a German cafeteria employee named Betty. Fellow seminarians, both white and black, talked him out of it, partially on the grounds that King's father would frown upon the interracial romance of a son he was grooming for a successor role in the pulpit. Not only would the relationship have been taboo in King's native Atlanta, but even had King chosen to pastor in the North (and further disappoint his father), MLK Sr. would have still viewed the cafeteria worker as below his son's station. Daddy King was dead set against his oldest son "marrying down." David Garrow, in his seminal civil rights book Bearing The Cross, wrote that King never recovered from the heartbreak caused by the socially unacceptable affair. The senior King was not all that enamored with his son's matrimonial choice of conservatory student Coretta Scott either, as his arranged choice of a bride for Martin Jr. was opera singer Mattiwilda Dobbs, whose father founded the Atlanta Civic League and the Atlanta Negro Voters League.
3. Picking tobacco revealed to him a more open society.
When King was 15, and again when he was 18, he worked summers harvesting tobacco in Simsbury, Connecticut, not far from Hartford. His experience as a middle-class son of a prominent black family from Atlanta's prosperous "Sweet" Auburn Avenue performing menial labor in Yankee territory helped shape his future.