On this Martin Luther King Day, it’s worth reflecting on why his father changed his and his son’s name to honor Martin Luther. The Washington Post tells the tale. And it includes a detail I didn’t realize: That Martin Luther King, Jr., referred to Luther in his very last sermon before his death.
From DeNeen L. Brown, The story of how Michael King Jr. became Martin Luther King 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. . . .
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.”