On MLK Day, find out the real name of Martin Luther King Jr., and why it was changed

Mildred Europa Taylor January 15, 2024
Martin Luther King Jr. Photo: Nobel Foundation/Public domain/wiki

The fact that Martin Luther King Jr. was not born with that name may be unknown to some or surprising to others. He was born Michael King Jr. as his mother insisted that she named him Michael, after the archangel Michael, according to King scholar Patrick Parr, author of “The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age.” 

But as seen on his birth certificate, the name Michael has been crossed out and the words “Martin Luther Jr.” written. It is reported that it was Martin Luther King Sr. (King Jr.’s father) who changed his own name before going on to change his son’s name. Michael King Jr. became known to the world as Martin Luther King Jr.

Legendary civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., until he was fatally shot in April 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, was a preacher who used the tactics of nonviolence and civil disobedience to fight for equality and justice. Born on January 15, 1929, his known roles in social activism led to his death, and decades after, he continues to inspire many.

All the states in the U.S. annually observe the third Monday of January as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This year’s MLK Day actually falls on the civil rights icon’s birth date, interestingly. As the nation celebrates King Jr., here’s the background of how his name changed.

In 1934, King Sr., who was originally known as Rev. Michael King during his time as a senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga., went on a religious journey throughout Europe and the Middle East. During this church-sanctioned trip, King Sr. specifically traveled to Rome, Tunisia, Egypt, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem before arriving in Berlin, Germany to attend a Baptist World Alliance meeting – this was one year after Adolf Hitler became chancellor.

While in Germany, King Sr. was inspired by the reformer Martin Luther, who is well known for nailing his Ninety-five Theses to the door of a castle in Wittenberg in 1517. That act sparked the Protestant Reformation, splitting Protestantism from the Catholic Church. In other words, the German monk’s 95 Theses challenged the Catholic Church and eventually split Western Christianity. 

In honor of Martin Luther, King Sr. changed his name and that of his five-year-old son after coming back home in August 1934.

“It was a big deal for [Martin Sr.] to go there, to the birthplace of Protestantism,” Dr. Clayborne Carson, founding director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, told the Washington Post. “That probably implanted the idea of changing his name to Martin Luther King.”

Still, some historians say there is no firm conclusion on why King Sr. changed his name, Carson told The Post.

“Daddy King himself said he changed the name because he had an uncle named Martin and an uncle named Luther, and he was following his father’s wishes to change the name,” Carson said. “But it seems likely he was affected by the trip to Berlin because that would have brought him in the land of Martin Luther. I think the obvious reason is Martin Luther sounded more distinguished than Mike King.”

King Jr. would go on to talk about Martin Luther in his famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech. In that speech, King Jr. said he would visit Ancient Egypt and “watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons” and also visit Ancient Greece to watch famous philosophers “as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality.”

While speaking about the German church reformer, King Jr. said “I would even go by the way that the man for whom I’m named had his habitat, and I would watch Martin Luther as he tacks his 95 theses on the door at the church of Wittenberg.” 

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: January 15, 2024


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