Celebrity Names Blog

The Real Story of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Name

Every school child in America knows the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his leadership in the civil rights movement. But what most of us don't know is the story of King's name. On the day he was born, January 15, 1929, King was not named Martin.

According to his birth certificate, he was named Michael King, Jr. In 1957, King's father told the New York Post that the error on son's birth certificate stemmed from confusion over his own name. The story goes that until he was in his early twenties, the senior King was known as Mike. When he was twenty-two his father told him that his actual name was Martin Luther King after the German priest who initiated the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century. Mike was apparently just the nickname that his mother preferred.

But, since neither of the senior King's parents could read or write and had no birth certificate for their son, there was no way to know the truth. Nonetheless, he embraced the name Martin Luther and eagerly bestowed the name on his son. Years later it was revealed that the doctor who delivered the baby King had put Michael on his birth certificate as he believed that was the name of the senior King and that the baby was to be named after his father.

Further muddling the facts, there are conflicting reports as to whether or not Martin Luther King, Jr's name was ever officially changed or if his legal name remained Michael until his tragic death in 1968.

Three years before King's assination, the comedian Martin Lawrence was born, and his father named him after the civil rights leader. Lawrence's middle name is Fitzgerald, which was given to him in honor of the late President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

The name Michael comes from the Hebrew for Who is like God; Michael is cloest to God and responsible for carrying out God's judgements. Martin, on the other hand, comes from the Latin for Mars and is the name of the Roman mythological god of war. The name was borne by St. Martin of Tours who is remembered for splitting his cloak in two and giving half to a beggar.

Martin has also popped up as a middle name for some celebrity babies; actress Cate Blanchett named her son Ignatius Martin, and the actor Daniel Goddard is father to Ford Martin Goddard (another baby Ford!)

What do you think of the confusion surrounding Martin Luther King, Jr.'s name? Has something similar ever happened in your family?

--V.L.

Comments

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January 17, 2011 1:04 PM
By Lane

How very interesting that there was no official birth certificate for MLK jr's father!

January 17, 2011 1:06 PM
By Allison (not verified)

This happened with my familial last name...
When my grandfather came to the states from Greece with his parents, their last name was Dukas. Immigration officials "Americanized" the name to Duke.

It wasn't until my grandfather went to college that the name chance was realized. Instead of insisting on changing it back to the original Dukas, my grandfather and family embraced the chance and become the Duke family.

January 17, 2011 1:54 PM
By Carrie (not verified)

My great-grandfather was either named James Floyd, or Floyd James...he went by both of those at different times in his life! No one in the family knows which one was correct!

January 17, 2011 9:26 PM
By The Names Blog (not verified)

According to Wikipedia, Dr. King, Sr. legally changed his own name, and that of Dr. King, Jr. after a visit to Germany and in honor of theologian Martin Luther. That was supposedly in the early 1930s. But as you say, the picture is muddled. It's ironic that the name Martin is derived from the Latin Mars, for the Roman god of war!

January 18, 2011 1:33 PM
By Anonymous (not verified)

My grandmother recently informed me that although her mother had always been called Bessie, it was actually her middle name and her first name was Shifra or Sherri. Apparently this was due to an old Yiddish tradition to trick the angel of death by not referring to a child by their name since prior siblings had died in infancy.

January 19, 2011 8:31 PM
By Emily (not verified)

My dad was named, let's say "John Michael Smith, Jr." when he was born, and it wasn't until he was an adult that it was discovered that my grandfather's birth certificate actually read "John Michael JAMES Smith" so my dad dropped the junior part. My grandfather had never realized he had a second middle name!

January 21, 2011 11:26 PM
By Ko (not verified)

My great-great-grandfather supposedly emigrated (to Argentina) with someone else's documents, in order to escape the Danish army. No one but his wife knew, and she didn't say anything until she was on her deathbed. We still don't know the whole story, or what their original last name was.

October 29, 2011 12:14 AM
By Anonymous (not verified)

Great article but wrong information. He was not named after the German priest who initiated the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century- Martin Luther - There was a mistake but on his death bed, King Sr. father told him he was named after his two Uncles, Martin and Luther. You can find these facts in "Daddy King: An Autobiography" on page 86. Dr. King's only sister published a book in 2009 that furthers clears it up "Through it All" on page 21 -

Please visit my website TheDreamLives.com

January 4, 2013 9:07 PM
By build a pellet mill (not verified)

Mike was apparently just the nickname that his mother preferred.

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