Martin Luther King Day Could Have Been Michael Luther Jr. Day

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As we celebrate and honor the life of Martin Luther King Jr. today on his birthday, here’s a little known fact. 

His birth name was Michael.

Martin Luther King Jr. was actually born Michael King on January 15, 1929 at the family home located at 501 Auburn Ave in Atlanta.

He was named after his father Michael, who had been going unofficially by the name Martin, Marvin, or or M. L. King since the late 1920s.  It’s no surprise Sr. would want Jr. to share the same name. Just one year after his birth in the 1930 census records, both father and son are recorded as “Marvin” and “Marvin Jr.”  Perhaps a handwriting mistake for "Martin," but we don't know for sure.

 From  Roots of a Tree: The Genealogy of Martin Luther King Jr.  National Archives – Southeast Region.  

From Roots of a Tree: The Genealogy of Martin Luther King Jr. National Archives – Southeast Region.  

The Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Michael King Jr.’s birth certificate was changed to “Martin Luther King Jr. ” on 12 April 1934 after his father, a pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, returned from a trip to Germany.

In Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, author Taylor Branch describes King Sr.'s 1934 trip to Germany — which inspired the name change and would forever change history.

The trip culminated in a week long Baptist World Alliance conference in Berlin where he and 29 other black ministers helped racially integrate the Congress in the face of a “color ban.” They also condemned the rising anti-Semitism they saw in Nazi Germany and visited many of the historical religious sites where Martin Luther defied the Catholic Church centuries earlier.  

Luther was a Catholic priest and theologian in the 16th century, at a time when the church went largely unchallenged in Germany. The monk became more and more critical of his own institution, particularly the sale of indulgences.  With his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” later known as The Ninety-Five Theses, Luther set the ball rolling for reformation and was excommunicated for his “heresy.”

King Sr. returned home from the trip moved by what he had learned and decided to change both his and his son’s names to Martin Luther in honor of the German reformer.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s Family Tree

It wasn't just his father that was pastor, Martin Luther King Jr. came from a long line of preachers in Georgia. His family tree has been traced in census records, slave schedules and other documents back to 1860 and is documented in the National Archives publication From the Roots of a Tree: The Genealogy of Martin Luther King Jr.  

 From  Roots of a Tree: The Genealogy of Martin Luther King Jr.  National Archives – Southeast Region.  

From Roots of a Tree: The Genealogy of Martin Luther King Jr. National Archives – Southeast Region.  

There’s no doubt that we know a lot about the legendary Civil Rights leader.  But as genealogists verifying our sources, we often uncover information in records (like name changes) that upon further investigation  can add substance to an ancestor's story and a family's legacy.  In this case connecting a two Baptist ministers from the American South and an medieval German monk. Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr. shared much more than a name. Men of faith and reformers, they both changed the worlds they lived in for the better. 

Kimberlie Guerrieri