On January 15, 1929 a baby boy who was destined to do great things came screaming into the world. His name was Michael, after his father, a Baptist minister who served as the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
A few years later in 1934, Michael’s father traveled to Germany to attend a Baptist World Alliance meeting. This was about a year after Adolph Hitler had come to power as chancellor, and Germany was becoming an uncomfortable place to be, losing itself to hatred and discrimination with the rise of the Nazi party.
The state of affairs in that nation and in the world weighed heavily on the reverend’s mind as he toured sites important in the story of Martin Luther, another man of God who found himself in an environment in which those in power were guilty of oppressing the less powerful for personal gain. According to legend, in 1517 Luther declared the need for change, and his willingness to defend his argument, in the form of a list of ninety-five theses nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church.
In response to the swell of hatred in 1934, the Baptist World Alliance issued a statement of its own. It wasn’t a list of ninety-five theological arguments and questions nailed to a church door that would touch off a reformation movement. It was a strongly worded condemnation of “racial animosity, and every form of unfair discrimination toward the Jews, toward colored people, or toward subject races in any part of the world.”
Both the conference and the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of a 16th century German priest who prompted significant change in a world that was desperate for it, the Reverend Michael King, Sr. returned to the United States profoundly affected by all he’d seen.
So affected, in fact, that as he pondered the experience he came to a fairly unusual decision. He chose to legally change his name to Martin Luther King. His young son and namesake became Martin Luther, too, and on July 23 of 1957, the young man, then twenty-eight years old, made the official change to his birth certificate.
Today this son is remembered for his great leadership in bringing about change to a world in desperate need of it, for casting a vision in which all people condemn unfair discrimination and oppression. It was a challenging mantle to carry, one that cost him his life, but painted an enduring and powerful legacy.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is arguably better remembered in many circles today than is the priest whose name his father once decided to take as his own. But in learning and revisiting the activist’s story as we take time this weekend to honor the anniversary of his birth, I’m struck by the power of a name and the greatness it may inspire.