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.”
The transformation from Michael to Martin is illustrated in MLK’s writings and letters.
In an October 1948 letter to his mother, the younger King wrote home from Crozer Theological Seminary: “I often tell the boys around the campus I have the best mother in the world. You will never know how I appreciate the many kind things you and daddy are doing for me. So far I have gotten the money (5 dollars) every week.” He signed the letter, “Your son, M.L.”
By the 1950s, the young King had become Martin in his letters, according to the King Institute. In a July 18, 1952, letter to Coretta, who would become his wife, King writes: “Darling, I miss you so much.” The letter is poetic: “My life without you is like a year without a spring time which comes to give illumination and heat to the atmosphere saturated by the dark cold breeze of winter.” He goes on to talk about his opposition to capitalism and trade monopolies and the necessity of gradual social change.
King signs the letter, “Eternally Yours, Martin.”
In what would be his final sermon, on April 3, 1968, in Memphis, where King had returned to help the sanitation workers’ strike, King revealed why his father had changed his name to Martin. The sermon, in which King spoke extemporaneously to the mass meeting at Bishop Charles Mason Temple, is long remembered as prophetic.
King begins the sermon in a steady cadence: “If I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, ‘Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?,’ I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there.”
King described traveling to Greece and to Mount Olympus, “and I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon. And I would watch them around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality. But I wouldn’t stop there.”
He spoke of traveling through the “heyday of the Roman Empire,” then moving on to the “day of the Renaissance.”
“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.”
King concluded his sermon: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now,” he said, his voice rising. “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The next evening, as King prepared to go to dinner at the home of a local minister, a shot rang out, killing him on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. And the world mourned Martin Luther King Jr.