The American visionary and civil rights leader whose birthday we will celebrate on Monday didn’t start out as Martin Luther King, Jr. For the first few years of his life he was Michael King, Jr.—the son of the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. It was only after his father—Rev. Michael King, Sr.—returned from a trip to Berlin—where the story of the great German protestant reformer, Martin Luther, came alive for him in a powerful way—that both Michael Sr. and Jr. changed their names to Martin Luther King. This symbolic act had a profound impact on young Mike—now Martin.
Way back in 1517, Martin Luther became famous for his defiance of the corruption and false interpretation of scripture of the church of his time. His impact on history and the future of the church—and the world—increased dramatically when he courageously defended his beliefs in a church trial that could have resulted in a sentence of death. He was saved by those who took courage from both his teachings and his personal courage. Luther’s determined faith gave rise to the Protestant Reformation. It was this legacy and worldview that motivated Rev. King, Sr. to take the reformer’s name more than 400 years later in 1934.
So perhaps it is not surprising that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to prominence in American life both for the clarity with which he saw the falsity and evil in the denial of civil rights to African-Americans and all people, and also for his personal courage in refusing to be silenced by those who hated his message and sought to silence him. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was stopped by an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968, but his message has continued to reverberate in our country, and his legacy is honored in the holiday on Monday. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is the only person to have a holiday named for him that was not a US President.
In 1964, 30 years after his father’s visit to Berlin, Dr. King, Jr. also traveled to Berlin. At that time it was a city harshly divided by ideology and the Berlin Wall, which had been built in 1961. In sermons preached in both West and East Berlin, Dr. King quickly claimed kinship with his German audiences because of the name that had become his own. And he also placed himself squarely in the center of the legacy of the great reformer. While what he spoke to the people of Berlin is not as well known or dramatic as the “I have a dream” speech that is an indelible part of American history, his words still resonate with the values and determined spirit of his visionary leadership:
Whether it be East or West, men and women search for meaning, hope for fulfillment, yearn for faith in something beyond themselves, and cry desperately for love and community to support them in this pilgrim journey.
Regardless of the barriers of race, creed, ideology, or nationality, there is an inescapable destiny which binds us together. There is a common humanity which makes us sensitive to the sufferings of one another….
On the other side of the mountain, we see the giants. But God has brought us along this far, and we sing a song in our movement, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.” And when we have been afraid in the past, we have sung this song and kept on marching. And so, we will not turn back. We will learn to confront these demons just as we have those in the past, and we shall overcome (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., East Berlin, September 13, 1964).
May the annual observance of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. remind us of his life and legacy—and confirm in our hearts the commitment to the cause of justice and equality for all people.