Jan 04, 2021 | Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

Celebrate MLK’s birthday weekend, Jan. 15-18

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  You may have always wondered about his name. Was he or his father named for a famed, rebellious monk and professor who left the Roman Catholic Church and started the Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s? 

MLK, Jr., much like his German namesake of long ago, also began a reformation—not of religion but of race, as he led a pivotal civil rights movement for racial equality in this country. It was truly a movement because it continues to ripple out in ever-expanding circles of justice-seeking social change.

The story behind his name comes from Dr. King’s father, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. (1897-1984). He was named Michael King by his parents, and he named his son Michael King when the future civil rights leader was born in 1929.

From ‘Michael’ to ‘Martin’

In 1934, the elder King, who was at the time the senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga., traveled to Berlin, Germany, for the World Baptist Alliance. During that trip abroad, he also visited France and the Holy Land.  Afterwards he changed his name to Martin Luther King.

When asked about it, he said he had an uncle named “Martin” and another uncle named “Luther.” But one can only surmise that his visit to the home of the Reformation and its leader also spurred his interest in the name he adopted.

Throughout his ministry in Atlanta, Martin Luther King, Sr. was a brave and tireless reformer working for racial equality. His passion for justice burned even brighter after his visit to Europe.

“Daddy King,” as he would come to be known affectionately, was active in the NAACP. He led a huge voter registration drive in Atlanta, braved numerous personal threats, and worked for the equalization of salaries for African American teachers, to name just a few of his achievements.

‘I am a man.’

The elder King was once pulled over by a police officer for a minor traffic violation, and the officer called him “Boy.”  Martin Jr., who was in the car, observed as his father pointed to him and said boldly, “This is a boy. I am a man.”  The chastened officer quickly wrote the ticket and moved on. 

Ironically, those same self-affirming words, “I am a man,” were emblazoned on signs worn by Black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., when they marched for fair treatment and racial equality in 1968. MLK Jr. went there to march with them and help lead their fight when he was tragically assassinated April 4.

One cannot over-emphasize the legacy of justice and reform that was instilled in both the heart and the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. From his father he learned and experienced first-hand the meaning of the Christian “social gospel” of liberation for the oppressed.

From his father he learned how to work through the system to bring about change. His father taught him to take risks for the greater good and to bravely speak “truth to power.”

Our decisions, actions proclaim who we are

Today our decisions and actions—or our indecision and inaction—whether to seek justice for all or to accept the status quo of inequality—make our lives visible billboards that proclaim who we are and what we believe. Whether we intend it or not, we are role models for younger generations and even for one another.

If we claim the name of Christ in our faith, then we should live up to that name, as MLK Jr. lived up to his. We should strive to be living examples of the one whom we claim to follow.

What do young people learn from you?  How does your life demonstrate a profound commitment to the teachings of Jesus Christ, who came to set captives free and bring recovery of sight to the blind—the literally and spiritually blind of this world?  

I ponder these questions as I celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He set a fire of justice on a thousand hills that continues to blaze brightly.  He lived up to his name and to the principles of his faith. Let us all try harder to do the same.   

Republished from The Bishop’s Blog.


Resources:  

Also, read How Martin Luther influenced Martin Luther King Jr.