Martin Luther King, Jr. Was Almost Named Michael but His Father Changed Their Names

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Jan. 16 2024, Published 1:09 p.m. ET

Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking in Selma, Ala.
Source: Getty Images

Martin Luther King, Jr. has one of the most memorable names in American history, but his father almost named him something completely different. When he was born in 1929, the name on his birth certificate was Michael King, and he was named after his father, who had the same name.

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His father, Rev. Michael King, was the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church. In 1934, the elder King was sent to Europe for a meeting that would ultimately lead both father and son to have new names. Here's why Michael King ultimately changed his name, and his son's, to Martin Luther.

Martin Luther King, Jr. marching along with a crowd.
Source: Getty Images
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Why did Martin Luther King, Sr. change his name?

In 1934, Michael King was sent to Europe for a meeting of the Baptist World Alliance. The meeting was in Berlin, but Michael also traveled to Rome, Tunisia, Egypt, Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

While there, Michael saw the early days of the Third Reich. At the meeting, the Baptists released a statement explicitly calling out the Nazi regime for its oppressive tactics.

"This Congress deplores and condemns as a violation of the law of God the Heavenly Father, all racial animosity, and every form of oppression or unfair discrimination toward the Jews, toward coloured people, or toward subject races in any part of the world," a statement from the group read.

Michael also toured much of Germany during his trip, which was the birthplace of Martin Luther and of Protestantism as a religious movement.

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After returning to Atlanta, Michael decided to change his name and the name of the son he had named after himself to Martin Luther after the leader of the Protestant movement.

"Thus we can see that Berlin was partly responsible for Martin Luther King, Jr., becoming the man we celebrate today," King Institute director Clayborne Carson said.

Source: Twitter/@BerniceKing
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That explains why Martin Luther King, Jr.'s official birth certificate was altered in 1957, when he was 28 years old, so that his name was changed to Martin Luther from Michael, which was then crossed out.

Of course, Martin Luther, who famously rebelled against the teachings of the Catholic Church and forged his own path through Christianity, proved to be something of a prophetic name for the Civil Rights icon.

He was Martin Luther from the age of 5 or 6.

While Martin Luther King, Jr. may have waited several decades to have his name officially changed, all reports suggest that Michael decided to change his name almost immediately after returning home from his trip abroad. This suggests that he was simply known as Martin Luther for those intervening years, even if that wasn't officially what his name was.

For almost all of his time as a public figure, though, Martin Luther's name had officially been changed, which is why he is known as MLK to this day. His father may not have known what role his son would play in shaping the course of history, but in giving him a name with historic weight, he certainly seemed to point him down a specific path.

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