If you ever found out that Martin Luther King Jr. was born Michael King Jr. you might be wondering why MLK changed his name. Perhaps you may have even seen his birth certificate, which shows the name Michael crossed out and the words “Martin Luther Jr.” written in, in a revision dated five years after his birth.
Turns out, it was the late Civil Rights Movement icon’s father, Martin Luther King Sr., who changed his name — and who changed his own.
As we celebrate another Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, Jan. 17, here’s the backstory…
Martin Luther King Sr. was likely inspired by Martin Luther’s story during a trip to Germany.
Martin Sr., who was originally known as Rev. Michael King or M.L. King during his days as a senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga., traveled throughout Europe and the Middle East on a church-sanctioned trip in 1934, ending up in Germany, where he was slated to attend a Baptist World Alliance meeting, according to The Washington Post.
According to Dr. Clayborne Carson, founding director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, Martin Sr. was inspired by his time in Germany and by the life of German theologian Martin Luther. As the story goes, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of a castle in Wittenberg in 1517, sparking the Protestant Reformation that split Protestantism off from the Catholic Church.
“It was a big deal for [Martin Sr.] to go there, to the birthplace of Protestantism,” Carson, editor of Martin Jr.’s posthumous autobiography, told the Post. “That probably implanted the idea of changing his name to Martin Luther King.”
That said, as Carson admitted, that origin story for the Kings’ names isn’t gospel. “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,” the Stanford professor explained. “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.”
Martin Jr. talked about Martin Luther in his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.
In his final sermon — delivered in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968, the eve of his assassination — Martin Jr. referenced his namesake as he talked about the “possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now.”
In that speech, which is famous for his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” quote, the famed Baptist minister said he would visit Ancient Egypt and “watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons” and Ancient Greece to watch famous philosophers “as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality.”
Then he mentioned the German priest: “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,” he said.
In the book Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954–63 (via the Post), historian Taylor Branch wrote that Martin Jr. initially “shrank from [the name], commenting publicly only once, after the Montgomery bus boycott, that ‘perhaps’ he ‘earned’ his name.’ Reverend King supplied the wish and the preparation, but it remained for strangers in the world at large to impose Martin Luther King’s name upon him.”