The interesting history of the real name of Martin Luther King Jr. – and why it was changed

Monday - 17/01/2022 08:00

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses marchers during his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. AP File Photo

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses marchers during his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. AP File Photo
There's a reason African Americans, historically, have been drawn to the Baptist sect.

"Michael King Day." 

Doesn't have quite the same ring, does it?

Great names go with great deeds. So maybe Michael King Sr. knew what he was doing when — in 1934 — he made a momentous change. Or rather two.

He would thereafter be known as the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. His 5-year-old son — also a Michael — would be Martin Luther King Jr.

What? You didn't know that "Martin" was not MLK's given name?

"(King Sr.'s) mother insisted that she named him Michael, after the archangel Michael," said King scholar Patrick Parr, author of "The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age." 

That MLK was not born MLK might be news to some — as we prepare to celebrate the 36th federal Martin Luther King Day on Monday.

But the name change is worth thinking about. It says a lot about the man, the values of his family, and the larger meaning of what he did.

"Symbolically, it matters, and it adds a certain historical gravitas to his name," Parr said.

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Martin Luther — the original Martin Luther (1483-1546)  — was, of course, the founder of the Protestant Church. The Baptist sect, one of its branches, was the denomination of King Sr. and Jr. — one of whom succeeded the other as pastor of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Luther was a rebel. "Here I stand, I can do no other," he famously said.

The very name — Protestant — has "protest" built into it. His church valued individual conscience, standing up to oppressive authority — which, in the 16th century, was the Catholic Church. 

In MLK's day, the oppressive structure was racism. And he fought it with marches, speeches, sit-ins. He was arrested, his followers were beaten. But he refused to budge. "Here I stand."
 

Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. Biography
 


A fateful trip

It's likely that King Sr. — "Daddy King" — was made newly aware of the history of Martin Luther, and his resolute personality, during a 1934 pilgrimage to Germany, the land of Luther's birth. It was a momentous trip. A game changer.

That was the year he and his son were rechristened — unofficially, in the case of the boy — "Martin Luther."

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Author: Editors Desk

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 Keywords: United States

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