Or is it known but not talked about? After mentioning Reformation Leader Martin Luther in a page on Christianity, I decided to write on something I’ve wondered about for many years. I’ve often wondered how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s grandparents decided on that name for his father. So, prompted by next week’s celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I set about the task of writing on the circumstances behind his grandparents’ choice of names. Why did the Kings name his father after the noted German monk who sparked the Reformation movement? Well, truth is . . . they didn’t — not at his birth. I came across two articles about the origins of the MLK name. And neither of them say that the the grandparents named the father of the Civil Rights Activist after the monk.
The first report I came across was in an online issue of Forbes. What I found out there was that the elder King’s given name was Michael (some reports specify, “Michael Luther King”). Then after a 1934 missionary trip to Germany where he learned about Reformation Leader Martin Luther, he changed his name — and that of his 5-year old son — to Martin Luther King, Sr. and Jr., respectively. This is the most likely, and most repeated, version of the truth. It’s harmless enough and carries a level of charm.
This fact is also addressed in question 7 of the NPS’s Frequently Asked Questions About Dr. King’s Birth Home. Nestled among other questions about the home is a question about Dr. King’s birth name.
As I sought to gather more writings on the same explanation, I came across another that claimed the physician misunderstood what the child’s name was to be and wrote “Michael” instead of “Martin” on the birth certificate. My genealogical experience confirms this type of error was possible during that era; but it’s just not very convincing.
This post focuses on the charm aspect of the story; and will not probe into whether the names were legally changed. I can only imagine how King detractors would process this fact about him. I suspect their obvious treatment would be to focus on the legality of the name and documents that bore its signature. I stumbled upon it while preparing to write about why his grandparents chose that name for his father. Instead I found a little-known fact, with a varied range of significance, that we can only smile and wonder about today. Yes the circumstances and dates vary. But isn’t that the mark of a true legend? What I found was an unexpected fact that I am even more inspired to share.
So my relating the 20th century “Martin Luther King, Sr.” to the 15th century “Martin Luther” was not far-fetched in the least. My thought has been that the Civil Rights Leader’s parents named his father after the German monk who sparked the Christian Reformation. Well, the source of the name is correct. The only difference is that it wasn’t his grandparents who decided on the name . . . but his father . . . five years after young Michael was born. In the end, both the namesake (a word for which there is no antonym) and the original made substantial contributions to effect change in their respective eras and for posterity.