The interesting history of the real name of Martin Luther King Jr. – and why it was changed
"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."
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."
"After he went over to Europe, he changed his name," said Robert H. Robinson, deacon of Mount Olive Baptist Church in Hackensack, who has been involved for years in the church's Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations. "He took that on."
The trip to Germany had other repercussions, for both father and son.
MLK is more than just an American civil rights martyr. He is a universal hero like Gandhi: winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, a man who has been honored with statues in countries he never set foot in.
His program was global: In his life he addressed issues like war, world poverty and class exploitation. "Dr. King fought for the people, for what was going on in the world," Robinson said.
That insight — that injustice was a global problem, not limited to the streets of Atlanta and Birmingham — also has its roots in Daddy King's 1934 trip to Europe. Which climaxed, fatefully, at the Baptist Fifth World Congress in Berlin.
"They were bringing together all the international facets of the Baptist church," said historian Clayborne Carson, director of Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, and author of "The Martin Luther King Jr. Encyclopedia."
"And, of course, a lot of Black people in the U.S. were Baptist," Carson said. "There was a delegation of Black ministers who went."
An independent church
There's a reason African Americans, historically, have been drawn to the Baptist sect.
In most churches, Carson points out, minsters are appointed by higher-ups. But Baptists allowed each church to choose its own minister — regardless of training or background.
"If you think about it, for Black people, simply being assigned a white minister would not have given them much independence as a church," he said.
"In a Baptist church, you didn't have to have training at an official seminary, or have degrees. You could be trained by another minister, as King's father and grandfather were. It was the one institution where a Black person didn't have to depend on a white person for a job."
That policy had far-reaching effects. It was natural that the Baptist church would be a center for Black free expression. Also protest — as civil rights became an increasingly central issue in the 1930s, '40s and '50s.
Racism, in America, would have hardly been news to the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. But when he went to Germany in 1934, he would have seen something else.
Adolf Hitler, the new chancellor, was taking a leaf out of Alabama's book. In "Mein Kampf," he had praised Americans for “excluding certain races from naturalization.” Now he was proudly imitating the policy in Germany.
In March 1933, Berlin suspended Jewish doctors from its payroll. In July, the Denaturalization Law revoked the citizenship of naturalized Jews and "undesirables."
Taking a stand
So racism — not as an American problem, but as a world problem — was on everybody's mind. It was in this spirit that the Baptist Fifth World Conference issued a resolution. It was a forceful stand: their version of Martin Luther's 95 Theses.
“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," it read.
Was King Sr. fired up by all this? Undoubtedly, Robinson said. The whole point of a Baptist conference is to get you fired up.
"That's what it's built to do," said Robinson, who has attended many over the years: in Detroit, Atlanta, Philadelphia and many other places. Generally they're four or five days — classes in the afternoons, sermons at night.
"When you come away from those conventions, you're ready," he said. "If you go to a conference, and you don't come back inspired to do the work, you're in trouble. Some of those conventions are so powerful they'll make you change."
As, for instance, the name change to "Martin Luther King." It was a gesture — to the larger world church of which he was a part, and also to the issues of equality that, he would have seen firsthand, were world issues.
Bringing it home
In Berlin, Parr said, King Sr. saw the increasing menace of Hitler. But he also saw, embodied in the conference, something else.
"He saw that portions of German culture were seeking to be the antithesis of what Hitler was describing," Parr said. "In short, he was witnessing a minority doing what they could to bring balance to their country. When he came back to the states, King Sr. did attempt to create social change in Atlanta, emphasizing desegregation. All while a young and impressionable MLK looked on."
As a matter of fact, King Sr. was instrumental in bringing the sixth congress of the Baptist World Alliance, in 1939, to Atlanta.
In later years, King Jr. had mixed feelings about his namesake.
There was another side to Martin Luther. The German priest was himself a bigot, who persecuted Jews and favored death for heretics. It was not until 1957, long after he became famous, that Martin Luther King Jr. finally got around to changing the name "Michael" on his birth certificate.
"ML's opinion was that although the German theologian was courageous in rebelling against the Catholic Church, he didn't care enough for the common people of his time," Parr writes in his book "The Seminarian."
"ML shied away from the comparisons," Parr said. "Instead of embracing any similarities, he chose to focus on the differences."
Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: The interesting history of the real name of Martin Luther King Jr. – and why it was changed