I can’t count, let alone recount, the times during our 25 years on tour in the Lost And Found folk band, that folks we met along the way confused Martin Luther, the 16th Century German reformer with Martin Luther King Jr., the 20th Century American civil-rights leader. The first few dozen times it happened, I thought it was sort of funny – like confusing the Berlin Wall with the Wailing Wall with the Great Wall since they all have the last name Wall. Then at some point I realized, of course, that it makes perfect sense that these two reformers would be related – not by blood, but by mission. Both spoke truth to power.
At some point, during an observance of MLK Day one January, re-reading MLK’s last public speech I noted that he mentioned Martin Luther’s 95 theses, and referred to the reformer as his “namesake.” His father once attributed the name to uncles, but here in this speech, MLK confirms, proudly one might infer, since he took the time to mention it, that the 16th Century German reformer was his namesake. The historian Taylor Branch reports about MLK’s name that while he initially shrank from it, he “commented publicly after the Montgomery boycott that ‘perhaps’ he ‘earned’ his name.”
What I didn’t know until recently was that MLK was born Michael King in 1929, and his father was Michael J King. In 1934 MLK’s father made a trip to Germany for a Baptist Church convention, visited sites associated with Martin Luther, and inspired by the reforming work of Martin Luther, returned home to Atlanta where he was pastor of Ebenezer Church, and that same year changed his own name to Martin Luther King and his son’s to Martin Luther King Jr. Later, when MLK was 28 years old his birth certificate was modified from his birth name Michael King, to the new name his father chose for himself and for his son: Martin Luther King.
There is not a lot written about his thought process or what specifically moved the elder King to make this move. Whatever specific reason, or moment of revelation while touring Germany, influenced the father, the connection between the work of the namesake and the work of the adult son is hard to miss. The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther, in April 1521, standing on faith and buoyed by scripture and conscience, stood up to Pope and Kaiser at the Imperial Diet in Worms Germany. Years of work, thousands of words, regular threats to his life and safety, hundreds of confrontations, speeches, and formal and informal defenses of his understanding of a human being’s place in the scheme of Justice, led him to a moment, remembered for the ages, when the reformer would not be moved.
“Here I stand,” said Luther, and this truth-to-power moment is re-membered throughout the years and across the miles – here in the United States from a steaming state house in Philadelphia in 1776 to a bridge in Selma in 1965, from Seneca Falls to Stonewall to Harlan County, and around the world in town squares from Pariser to Tiananmen to Tahrir. Martin Luther, a law-school dropout, a once obscure monk, took note of human torment and injustice, and could not back down as events propelled him to a face-off with the most powerful authorities of his day. His voice was heard, and his name was remembered. He became a namesake. The Reformation continued.
Martin Luther King Jr. led a movement and changed the course of American history. He had a dream. Today, people of good faith pray that his dream is coming true. It’s an ongoing process, one we cannot just pray for but must also work to ensure is not only processing but also progressing. That is to say, the Reformation continues.
On Martin Luther’s birthday, I am reminded by his action on that April day in 1521 at Worms, that not just the Church, but the whole world, is strengthened and improved by the contributions and valued voice of every person -- every shape, size, race, color, gender, faith, status, age, orientation, language, and persuasion. By that inclusion we know: The Reformation continues.
Come see for yourself, and be inspired, as was King’s father. Walk in the steps of the Reformers. Join us in June 2021 at the Luther500 Fest in Wittenberg and Worms, plus Eisleben, Erfurt, Leipzig and Eisenach. During the 500th Anniversary of the Diet of Worms, there are special one-time exhibits in Wittenberg, at the Wartburg Castle, and in Worms. Get more information here on this website.