In Black American history there have been many influential people.
Phyllis Wheatley. Sojourner Truth. Harriet Tubman. Frederick Douglass. Booker T. Washington. George Washington Carver. Jackie Robinson.
But few transformed America and his race more than Martin Luther King, Jr.
It’s why every January, America stops to celebrate his birthday. He’s on par with Washington and Lincoln. But who influenced King? Why is Martin named after the Protestant Reformer? And what can we learn from his story?
Here’s the story behind the story you might not know about this social reformer. And it starts with his name. It wasn’t originally Martin.
Michael Luther King, Jr. was born January 15, 1929.
He was born in a lineage of faith. His daddy (Michael Sr.) and granddaddy were Baptist preachers in Georgia. Michael Sr. and Michael Jr. were known as “Big Mike” and “Little Mike” by their family and closest friends. King grew up in the wooden hardback pews of his father’s Atlanta church…a congregation that he would one day also pastor…Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Originally Martin’s name was “Michael.” But Big Mike changed it to Martin after he attended the 1934 Congress of the Baptist World Alliance in Berlin, Germany. As part of that trip, the elder King toured historic German sites related to the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther. At the same time, Big Mike was also exposed to a rising German Nazism.
Both Luther’s righteous rebellion against the political system of his day and Hitler’s fascist control over a people captured the Sr. Michael’s attention. He resolved to live and lead differently.
As a testament to that conviction, he changed his name to “Martin” Luther King, Sr. Then bestowed his new moniker upon Little Mike “Martin” Luther King, Jr. It was a father’s blessing, and also an anointing. The “junior” King would be set apart, much like Moses, to be used of God–an instrument for righteous change in an America that still treat blacks like they were segregated slaves in Egypt.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a student of the Bible…from his youngest days.
The “junior” Martin grew up reading the Bible aloud and listening in rapt awe to his “Mama” Jennie (grandmother) weave stories about biblical characters and events. He memorized dozens of Bible verses and hymns…as a preschooler. His favorite hymn? “I Want to Be More and More Like Jesus.” His deep knowledge of Scripture and ability to communicate served him well as an orator with a message.
A childhood friendship introduced King to racial bigotry.
At the tender age of six, King befriended a white neighbor boy. The two kids were inseparable…until their education forced the young boys to enroll in different schools. After that point, the white boy’s parents suddenly prohibited their friendship. The young King was deeply hurting and confused. His parents tried to console him, and explained the difficult racial divide between whites and blacks, especially in the Deep South.
Thats the day King learned about his people’s legacy of racism, segregation, and slavery.
Initially, King’s hurt went negative. He felt anger and bitterness. He vowed to “hate every white person.” However, his Christian parents quickly corrected that attitude. Instead, they encouraged the young Martin to love others, unconditionally, like Jesus. Nevertheless, in this experience, King learned to feel the pain of his people and tap the anger in a productive and positive way to transform America.
King’s adolescence proved a time of change and transformation…into a man, orator and protestor.
As a teen, Martin loved the opera and playing the piano and violin. His favorite subjects were English and history. King attended Booker T. Washington High School—the only all-Black high school in Atlanta—and posted a B+ average. But it was Martin’s public speaking ability that caught the attention of his teachers and peers. King’s young emerging baritone voice and deep vocabulary put him on a different level as a orator.
He not only sounded great to the ear but also spoke great words to the heart.
In 1944, King won his first speaking contest. In his speech he argued: “Black America still wears chains. The finest negro is at the mercy of the meanest white man.” King and his teacher learned what that line meant on their bus ride home to Atlanta. Their white bus driver, in order to seat all the white riders, ordered King and his black teacher to abandon their seats…and stand for the ride.
It had already been a long day, so a long ride standing had no appeal. The adolescent King angrily protested and refused to give up his seat. However his instructor persuaded him to reconsider that decision. It was an illegal act (a violation of Jim Crow laws) and it could produce disastrous consequences from a beating to jail to lynching.
However, by 1944 lynchings had been on the decline since the mid-1930s (according to the Tuskegee Institute). In 1935, there were 18 lynchings of blacks, but only 17 combined between 1940-1943. In 1944, there were only two black lynchings.
Martin finally agreed to give his seat away. However, the moment left a bad taste in his mouth. He learned that day how some forms of social protest made things worst…and weren’t worth the price.
A few months later, King also experienced a different side (and kind) of America.
Martin headed to Connecticut to work a tobacco farm with some friends. It was his first time north of the Mason-Dixon line. King wrote his father how the integrated North was refreshingly different. To his surprise, he experienced “no discrimination” and found the “white people…were very nice.”
King further noted how blacks could “go to any place” they desired and “sit anywhere” they wanted. He was amazed that even “the finest restaurants” did not separate or refuse service to the black. He even happily attended a church where “Negroes and whites” worshipped together. This brief experience provided King a vision for what could be. It also proved not all whites were racist. In fact, to the contrary, they were welcoming, tolerant and helpful.
It was the America that Martin Luther King, Jr. would eventually cast as a “dream” for his people and homeland.
- Wikipedia: “Martin Luther King, Jr.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther_King_Jr.
- “Lynchings by State and Race: 1882-1968,” Tuskegee Institute: http://www.archive.tuskegee.edu/repository/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Lynchings-Stats-Year-Dates-Causes.pdf