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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is arguably one of the most-studied public figures in world history. Very few facts about the former civil rights icon have gone unpublished. Still, here are some facts about Dr. King’s life you may not know.


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1) Dr. King Was Involved In A Landmark U.S. Supreme Court Libel Case

On March 29, 1960, the New York Times published a full-page advertisement titled “Heed Their Rising Voices” that abhorred southern police departments and local government officials for physically abusing peaceful protesters and suppressing their rights to protest. The ad also solicited funds to defend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. against an Alabama perjury indictment that alleged he lied on tax returns from 1956 and 1958 (more on King’s tax-evasion trial below). The advertisement inaccurately stated that Alabama State Police arrested Dr. King seven times when he had only been arrested four times prior to its publication.

Even though Montgomery, Alabama’s then-Public Safety Commissioner L. B. Sullivan was not mentioned in the ad, he argued its commentary damaged his reputation. An Alabama court ruled in Sullivan’s favor, awarding him $500,000 in damages.  The ruling was appealed and argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in the Times’ favor 9-0, determining that Alabama’s courts did not sufficiently protect freedom of speech and freedom of the press as required by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The Court’s ruling set the precedent for more aggressive reporting of civil rights abuses by southern states forthwith.

Moreover, the ruling specifically required that any plaintiff suing for defamation must prove that the statements in question were made in malice. So you may not like the National Inquirers of the world, but unless you can prove their content was purposefully designed to harm your reputation, you’ll have to live with it.

Sources:, The Oyez Project At Chicago-Kent, “Parting the Waters, America In The King Years 1954-63,” by Taylor Branch

2) Alabama Prosecuted Dr. King For Back Taxes

Dr. King was the first person in Alabama’s history to be prosecuted for felony tax evasion, according to “Parting The Waters.” Technically, he was charged with perjuring himself by signing his tax returns for 1956 and 1958. Here’s an explanation behind why the charges were brought forth:

King commonly accepted donations to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization he led from its inception until his assassination, and other civil rights activities via his personal checking account. He tallied, in great detail, every donation given to him in personal diaries. This practice got him into trouble with the State of Alabama for tax evasion. Of course, King’s civil rights activities in the state were of great consternation to local and state officials determined to bury him. His questionable record-keeping was a weakness his racist adversaries in Alabama’s bureaucracy hoped to use to imprison him.

King‘s lawyers thought his chances of winning the case were slim, especially since he had never won a court case in Alabama before. Still, his personal diaries ended up keeping him out of prison, and he was eventually found not guilty.

Sources: “Parting The Waters, America In King Years 1954-63”

3) The March On Washington Was Organized By A Gay Black Man

Bayard Rustin was one of King’s top aids but the least-discussed because he was gay. Rustin regularly assisted King with fund-raising, bus-integration initiatives, and a host of other issues. Most importantly, Rustin is recognized as one of the key organizers for the 1963 March on Washington, but he was never allowed to be fully recognized for his work because of his communist leanings and sexual orientation. Hopefully, Rustin‘s efforts can be truly recognized in 2012.

It is worth noting that before her death in 2006, Dr. King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, supported gay marriage and denounced efforts to make it constitutionally illegal.

Sources: Wikipedia, USA Today, “Parting the Waters, America In The King Years 1954-63”

4) Dr. King Was Painstakingly Frugal, Conscience Of Image

Dr. King was paid a token salary of $1 from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and an annual salary of $6,000 from Ebenezer Baptist Church, a paltry sum for a man of his stature – even in the 1960s. According to Branch, King was painstakingly cognizant of his public image, fearing any perceived excess would draw unneeded scrutiny.  Nonetheless, his frugality drew accusations from Atlanta’s black elites that he was “too conspicuously humble.”

Source: “Parting the Waters, America In The King Years 1954-63”

5) Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” Is Dedicated To King

If you do not know the lyrics, your ear would likely skip over the lines that go:

I just never understood

How a man who died for good

Could not have a day that would

Be set aside for his recognition

Because it should never be

Just because some cannot see

The dream as clear as he

That they should make it become an illusion

And we all know everything

That he stood for time will bring

For in peace our hearts will sing

Thanks to Martin Luther King

Sources: YouTube, The Guardian

6) There Was A Racist Road To MLK Federal Holiday

King is one of only three people (Christopher Columbus and George Washington are the others) to have a U.S. federal holiday named in his honor. Four days after King’s assassination, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich) introduced a bill on the House floor that established a Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Holiday.

The bill faced years of fierce opposition, with some congressmen claiming that King was unworthy of such an honor. Leading the opposition was the late Sen. Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina). On Oct. 3, 1983, Helms presented a paper, “Martin Luther King Jr.: Political Activities and Associations,” on the Senate floor, outlining King’s alleged communist affiliations and promiscuity. His blocking of the bill didn’t work. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass) introduced the Senate version of the MLK bill that passed by a vote of 78-22 sixteen days later.

On Nov. 3 of that same year, 15 years after Conyers first legislative attempt, Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law, establishing that every third Monday of January be recognized as an MLK federal holiday.

Still, many states refused to honor the holiday. Former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) infamously opposed the holiday’s recognition in his home state of Arizona during his early days as a representative. Watch this video clip here to see him explain why he initially opposed the bill. (His ignorance is breathtaking.)

McCain eventually supported the holiday and even backed a 1990 referendum asking Arizonians to recognize it. The referendum failed. Consequently, the National Football League (NFL) rescinded its decision to have Super Bowl XXVII played in Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona in 1993.

Arizona eventually voted in favor of the holiday via a referendum in 1992. (Subsequently, the NFL played Super Bowl XXX in Tempe, Ariz., in 1996.) In 2000, South Carolina became the last state to observe the holiday. Ironically, its state Legislature voted to remove the Confederate battle flag atop the Statehouse that same year.

Sources: Time Magazine, New York Times, The King Center

Given that Dr. King’s birthday is upon us, let us rejoice in his spirit by singing his praises. Happy Birthday, Dr. King!


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