The only American to have a federal holiday named for him, Martin Luther King, Jr. remains a celebrated leader more than 60 years after he first appeared on the national stage fighting for civil rights. The Baptist minister stepped forward in the African-American struggle for equality and led the cause using civil disobedience before sealing his place in history through inspiring speeches, such as “I have a dream,” presented to hundreds of thousands of protesters during the 1963 march on Washington. King was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, the youngest recipient ever honored. And while his dream has since moved closer to reality, King was slain before he could see his words come to fruition, a martyr to freedom. To this day, King is one of the most recognized of 20th-century Americans, and few are unaware of his legend.
In spite of his heroism in the face of adversity, King was still human. And as a human, he was flawed. While King the legend was selfless and heroic, King the man was an adulterer and a cheater who tried to hide his smoking habit. If he had lived in today’s world of constant scrutiny, King the legend could have been assassinated by the media long before King the man fell to an assailant’s bullet. Fortunately, Martin Luther King, Jr. is one American hero who is remembered and honored for his public accomplishments instead of the skeletons in his closet.
Of course part of King’s legend was to keep his personal mistakes private − at least at the time. Following are 11 facts Martin Luther King, Jr. wouldn’t want you to know.
11. MLK, Jr. Never Existed
It’s always helpful for a budding legend to have a legendary name, and nothing could be more true in King’s case. Technically, however, Martin Luther King, Jr. never existed − at least in the legal sense. On his birth certificate, King’s first name was listed as Michael. The confusion actually began with the naming of his father, Martin Luther King, Sr. According to King Sr., his given name was Martin but his mother always called him Mike. In 1957, the elder King told the New York Post he wasn’t even aware his first name was actually Martin until his father told him when he was 22 years old.
“I was elated to know that I had really been named for the great leader of the Protestant Reformation, but there was no way of knowing if papa had made a mistake after all,” King, Sr. told the Post. “Neither of my parents could read or write and they kept no record of Negro births in our backwoods county.”
Still, the senior King accepted the name Martin Luther and called his son the same. It wasn’t until many years later he discovered the doctor who delivered King, Jr. had listed his first name as Michael, thinking that was also his father’s first name. Whether it was a mistake or not, no records documenting a legal name change have ever been uncovered. Legally, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a myth.
10. King Wanted to Marry a White German Named Betty
In the 1940s, while attending Crozer Theological Seminary, King fell in love with a white woman, a scandalous affair at the time. As a Crozer student, King earned a reputation as a ladies’ man, a characteristic he would retain throughout his life. One particular romance involved Betty, the daughter of the seminary’s German cook. While King was smitten and saw Betty as wife material, an interracial relationship and the accompanying scandal would never be accepted in a Southern minister, and his father’s high aspirations forced King to end the relationship, graduating Crozer broken hearted. King, Sr. urged his son to marry opera singer Mattiwilda Dobbs, whose father founded the Atlanta Civic League and the Atlanta Negro Voters League, but the son ultimately wed conservatory student Coretta Scott.
9. King Twice Attempted Suicide
King struggled with bouts of depression throughout his life and he nearly didn’t grow into the celebrated hero he was to become. When interviewed for Time‘s Person of the Year in 1963, King recalled attempting suicide as a child. While he was assigned with watching his younger brother, he instead snuck away to see a parade. When the younger boy slid down a banister, bumping into and knocking down King’s grandmother, the woman fell to the floor unconscious. King thought she had died and, stricken with grief and guilt, jumped from a second-story window. Fortunately for King, his family and the world, he landed on the ground unhurt. But that would not be King’s final attempt at taking his own life. When he was still just 12, his grandmother did die, and the young King allegedly attempted suicide again, with the same result.
8. “I Have a Dream” Was Stolen from Archibald Carey
King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, given before more than 250,000 civil-rights supporters gathered in Washington, D.C., may be among the greatest rhetoric of the 20th century, if not all of American history. But some allege that it wasn’t exactly an original work. And they might be right to some extent.
Archibald Carey, an influential Chicago minister and politician, worked closely with King in the struggle for civil rights, including the historic Montgomery bus boycott. Carey delivered a speech before the Republican National Convention in 1952 that bears a striking similarity to parts of King’s 1963 speech. Carey concluded his address:
We, Negro Americans, sing with all loyal Americans:
My country ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the Pilgrim’s pride
From every mountainside
Let freedom ring!
That’s exactly what we mean — from every mountain side, let freedom ring. Not only from the Green Mountains and White Mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire; not only from the Catskills of New York; but from the Ozarks in Arkansas, from the Stone Mountain in Georgia, from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia — let it ring not only for the minorities of the United States, but for … the disinherited of all the earth — may the Republican Party, under God, from every mountainside, LET FREEDOM RING!
Does any of that ring a bell? In “I Have a Dream,” King also recited the verse to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” He also boisterously exclaimed, “Let freedom ring,” and called for it to ring from various American landmarks, some the same noted by Carey. Was he inspired by Carey, or did he copy him? Tomato, tomahto.
Ironically, King’s heirs have ferociously defended the copyright of, “I Have a Dream,” in court, restricting usage of and access to a momentous slice of American history.
7. King Plagiarized His Doctoral Dissertation
Archivists working on the Martin Luther King Papers Project in the 1980s alleged King heavily plagiarized the dissertation he prepared for his Ph.D. in theology from Boston University. According to his accusers, King heavily borrowed verbatim material from a variety of sources without including proper attribution − or any attribution at all! Anyone who remembers their college composition courses knows that’s a big no-no, but somehow the alleged plagiarism slipped by King’s professor.
In 1991 a committee of scholars from Boston University reviewed the allegations and concluded that King, indeed, plagiarized his dissertation, but it did not recommend the revocation of King’s doctorate. Still, the committee attached a letter to King’s dissertation in the university library, advising readers that numerous passages lacked appropriate quotations and citations of sources. In its decision, the committee found King’s continued use of uncited material equaled “a straightforward breach of academic norms and that constitutes plagiarism as commonly understood.”
6. King Held Socialist Political Views
King may have been the son of a prominent Atlanta family, but many of his views were shaped in the summers of his youth, spent picking tobacco on a farm in Connecticut. During those summers, the young King not only saw civil relations between whites and blacks, but he was also exposed to the plight of the poor. And capitalism simply didn’t fit into his dream of equality for all.
“One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?'” King proclaimed in a 1967 speech before the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”
But King didn’t simply denounce capitalism, he also accepted socialism − his biographer David J. Garrow even claimed King self-described as Marxist. King explained his point of view in a 1966 speech to his staff:
“We are saying that something is wrong… with capitalism…. There must be better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism,” King said. “Call it what you may, call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.”
5. FBI Investigated King for Communist Ties
Taking into account King’s admitted preference for socialism to capitalism, it’s really no surprise that the red-paranoid FBI of the 50’s and 60’s investigated him for possible communist ties. But the reality of it is still rather shocking. Under infamous chief J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI bugged King’s hotel rooms, expecting to record evidence of King’s communism. It was 1963, and King had already earned a reputation as a heroic leader in the struggle for civil rights, only one year before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Talk about a worthwhile use of government resources, right?
The official story is King was suspect because of his association with a former Communist Party insider named Stanley Levison, but it was no secret that Hoover took issue with King since the minister criticized bureau practices in the South, accusing Hoover of failing to enforce civil rights law and of mollycoddling racist Southern policemen.
The FBI got its dirt on King, but not the kind it expected. Instead, the FBI recorded ample evidence of King’s extramarital activities. In one memo, Hoover called King, “a tom cat with obsessive degenerate sexual urges.” Hoover even went so far as to smear King to the press in late 1964. From there, things just took a creepy turn for the worse. King received an anonymous letter, allegedly mailed by one of Hoover’s deputies, admonishing King for the “hideous abnormalities” found in someone once viewed as a “man of character.”
The letter used the word “evil” to describe King six times, calling him “dirty,” “filthy,” “a beast” and “a fraud.” Complete with plenty of racially-charged language, it concluded by offering a deadline of 34 days, “before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.” Finally, the anonymous writer advised King, “There is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is.”
It’s commonly thought the letter suggests King commit suicide. A full, uncensored version of the letter can even be found in a reprocessed set of Hoover’s official and confidential files at the National Archives. Current F.B.I. director James Comey actually keeps a copy of the King wiretap request on his desk as a reminder of the bureau’s capacity to do wrong.
4. King Was a Serial Adulterer
Of course Hoover wouldn’t have had his ammunition against King if the reverend wasn’t such a horn dog. But alas, everyone has their vices, and women were King’s. In a 1989 King biography, his friend and associate Rev. Ralph Abernathy wrote that King believed in the Bible’s prohibition of sex outside of marriage, but he “had a particularly difficult time with that temptation.” According to Abernathy, King spent the last night of his life enjoying the attentions of two lovers, followed by an unpleasant encounter with a third woman he left sprawled across his motel room bed.
Abernathy’s wasn’t the only account of King’s serial adultery. According to Pulitzer prize-winning biographer David Garrow, King’s philandering ways were an open secret among civil rights activists. Some even warned King to rein in his “compulsive sexual athleticism.” But Garrow claims King was unrepentant, telling one associate, “I’m away from home 25 to 27 days a month. F**king’s a form of anxiety reduction.”
Another King biographer, Taylor Branch, claimed that during King’s trip to Norway to collect the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, members of his entourage were discovered chasing after naked or near-naked prostitutes in an Oslo hotel. Branch even claimed that on one of the FBI’s tapes of the happenings in King’s hotel rooms he can be heard shouting, “I’m f**king for God! I’m not a negro tonight!”
3. Jackie Kennedy Despised King
History might like us to believe that contemporary leaders — at least those more or less on the same side — all got along splendidly. But logic tells us that couldn’t possibly be the case. And, according to recently released interviews, Jacqueline Kennedy despised King. Apparently her brother-in-law, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, had relayed details of King’s hotel sexcapades to the first lady.
“I can’t see a picture of Martin Luther King without thinking, you know, that man’s terrible,” Jackie said in one interview several months after her husband’s death. Apparently, Bobby had told her that King “was calling up all these girls and arranging for a party of men and women, I mean, sort of an orgy.”
Of course it’s hard to know how much of Jackie’s impression of King was actually formed by J. Edgar Hoover in his quest to destroy the reverend. Jackie recalled that Hoover once told President Kennedy that King tried to arrange a sex party while in town for the March on Washington, and he had also advised Robert Kennedy that King had made derogatory comments during the president’s funeral.
2. King Was Shot While Sneaking a Smoke
Smoking was the norm in the 1960s, but King chose to hide his habit for the sake of his children. In the 2008 documentary, The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306, King associate Dr. Billy Kyles, who was present on the balcony at Memphis’ Lorraine Hotel when King was assassinated, claims King had stepped out to grab a smoke. In fact, a cigarette butt can be plainly seen next to King’s body in at least two of the photos captured that fateful day in 1968. In fact, Kyles claimed that, while others scrambled to save King, he took the crushed cigarette from the dying reverend’s hand.
1. King Left His Family with Nothing
King once claimed he would rather be a free pauper than a rich slave. “There is nothing in all the world greater than freedom. It is worth paying for; it is worth losing a job for; it is worth going to jail for,” King said. “I would rather die in abject poverty with my convictions than live in inordinate riches with the lack of self respect.”
In the financial sense King was true to his word, even in death. There’s no question King was a successful man. Yet in spite of coming from an affluent family, writing five books, attending hundreds of speaking engagements and even winning $54,600 for the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize − a hefty sum in those days − King was insolvent when he died in 1968, leaving his wife and children no appreciable assets. Coretta Scott King even asked her husband to save some of the money for their four children’s college education, but King instead donated the money to the civil rights movement. In fact, King viewed his financial sacrifices akin to the vows of poverty taken by other clergy. Of course when a priest takes a vow of property he doesn’t have a wife and four kids to support…
Because King left his family with nothing of monetary value, his children were ultimately supported through childhood and educated thanks to help from activists such as Harry Belafonte. And, in an unfortunate turn of events, King’s children thanked Belafonte for his support by not inviting him to their mother’s funeral and then legally challenging him for ownership of three documents King and his wife had given Belafonte over the years.
“The papers are symbolic,” Belafonte said. “It’s really about what happened to the children, and I feel that somewhere, in this one area, I really failed Martin.”