Today Americans observe a U.S. federal holiday marking the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is observed on the third Monday of January each year, which is around the time of King’s birthday, January 15.
Here are five facts you should know about MLK:
1. King’s literary and rhetorical masterpiece was his 1963 open letter “The Negro Is Your Brother,” better known as the “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” The letter, written while King was being held for a protest in the city, was a response to a statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen titled “A Call for Unity.” An editor at the New York Times Magazine, Harvey Shapiro, asked King to write his letter for publication in the Magazine, though the Times chose not to publish it.
2. In 1964, King became the second African American—and the third black man—to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
3. A decade before he was assassinated, King was nearly stabbed to death in Harlem when a mentally ill African-American woman who believed he was conspiring against her with communists, stabbed him in the chest with a letter opener. He underwent emergency surgery, and remained hospitalized for several weeks but made a full recovery. The doctor who performed the operation said, “Had Dr. King sneezed or coughed the weapon would have penetrated the aorta. . . . He was just a sneeze away from death”
4. On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated by the #277 man on the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives list. In 1967, James Earl Ray escaped from the Missouri State Penitentiary by hiding in a truck transporting bread from the prison bakery. After being convicted for the murder of King Ray was sentenced to 99 years in Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. In 1977, Ray became the #351 on the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives list after he and six other convicts escaped from the prison. He was recaptured three days later and given another year in prison, bringing his sentence to 100 years.
5. The campaign for a federal holiday in King’s honor began soon after his assassination in 1968, but Martin Luther King, Jr. Day did not become a U.S federal holiday until Ronald Reagan begrudgingly signed the holiday into law in 1983. (Reagan was concerned that a paid holiday for federal employees would be too expensive.) Only two other persons have U.S. national holidays honoring them: George Washington and Christopher Columbus.