How Michael King Jr. Became Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. was born 90 years ago, on Jan. 15, 1929.

But the name on his original birth certificate — filed April 12, 1934, five years after King was born — was not Martin. Nor was it Luther. In fact, for the first years of his life, he was Michael King. And it wasn’t until he was 28 that, on July 23, 1957, his birth certificate was revised.

The name Michael was crossed out, next to which someone printed carefully in black ink: “Martin Luther, Jr.”

The story of how Michael became Martin began in 1934 when King’s father, who then was known as the Rev. Michael King or M.L. King, was senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church and a prominent minister in Atlanta. In the summer of 1934, King’s church sent him on a whirlwind trip. He traveled to Rome, Tunisia, Egypt, Jerusalem and Bethlehem before setting sail to Berlin, where he would attend a Baptist World Alliance meeting, according to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.

The trip to Germany, historians say, had a profound effect on the elder King.

King arrived in Berlin a year after Adolf Hitler became chancellor. During his trip, the senior King toured the country where, in 1517, the German monk and theologian Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg castle church, challenging the Catholic Church. The act would lead to the Protestant Reformation, the revolution that would split Western Christianity.

All around him in Berlin, King Sr. was seeing the rise of Nazi Germany. The Baptist alliance responded to that hatred with a resolution deploring “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.”

When the senior King returned home in August 1934, he was a different man, said Clayborne Carson, director of the King Institute. It was sometime in this year that he changed his name and changed his son’s name, too.

“It was a big deal for him to go there, to the birthplace of Protestantism,” said Carson, who edited “The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.,”which was compiled and written after King’s assassination. “That probably implanted the idea of changing his name to Martin Luther King.”

The act was almost biblical. “Jacob became Israel, Saul of Tarsus became Paul, Simon became Peter,” Taylor Branch wrote in “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63.” “For Mike King, who had come to Atlanta smelling like a mule, the switch to Martin Luther King caught the feeling of his leap to the stars.”

The elder King was born Michael King on Dec. 19, 1897, in Stockbridge, Ga., where his father worked on a plantation as a sharecropper, according to the King Institute. Mike King left the plantation after accusing the owner of cheating his father out of money.

In Atlanta, Mike King remade himself. “You can see him becoming more and more prestigious,” Carson, who was charged by King’s estate to edit his papers, told The Washington Post in an interview. “When he marries Alberta, he is a modestly educated preacher without a significant church … and probably a third-grade education until he goes to Morehouse College.”

King Sr. graduated from Morehouse in 1930, and when his father-in-law died, he became pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. “From that point on, he is pretty much consistently called M.L.,” Carson said. Many black people in the South used initials; they didn’t want to be called by their first names. If they had initials, it was not an option for white people to call black people by their names.

Scholars say there is no definitive account of why the senior King changed his name, Carson said.

“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.”

But the younger King initially “shrank from it, commenting publicly only once, after the Montgomery bus boycott, that ‘perhaps’ he ‘earned’ his name,” Branch said. “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.”

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Source: Washington Post