How MLK Changed His Name on His Birth Certificate

Last updated May 27th, 2021

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was born with a different name — Michael King. This was changed when he was 5 years old by his father, who had just completed an inspiring trip to Europe. Upon his return, pastor Michael King Sr. changed both his name and that of his son into Martin Luther King.

At first struggling to welcome the new name, MLK Jr. eventually embraced it and revised his own birth certificate in 1957.

In this article, we will learn about the reasons why Martin Luther King Sr changed his name and how the birth certificate was eventually amended. We will also look at how to change birth record information today.

Why Did Martin Luther King Change His Name?

MLK’s father was born as Michael King in Stockbridge, Ga. in 1897. He was the son of a plantation sharecropper but left the plantation early and moved to Atlanta, where he graduated from Morehouse College in 1930 and became a preacher.

The trip to Germany

In the summer of 1934, Michael King Sr. traveled to Europe to attend a Baptist Church Alliance meeting. Before the meeting, he had the chance to visit Rome, Tunisia, Egypt, Jerusalem and Betlehem during the trip.

When Michael King finally arrived in Berlin (the city where the meeting was to take place), Hitler had become chancellor of Germany.

As Nazi Germany was rising around him, the pastor visited sites that had been significant for the history of Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation in the 16th century and he witnessed the Baptist alliance’s rejection of “all racial animosity, and every form of oppression or unfair discrimination toward the Jews, toward coloured people, or toward subject races in any part of the world.”

It was a crucial chapter in the pastor’s life, who returned to America a changed man.

Several factors contributed to the decision

Although visiting the birthplace of Protestantism certainly had a pivotal role in the name changing, Martin Luther King Sr. himself noted that the new name was also a way of honoring 2 of his uncles, called Martin and Luther respectively.

Finally, Martin Luther had a more distinguished sound and reflected the great evolution of a man of humble origins.

From Michael King Jr to Martin Luther King Jr

According to historian and author Taylor Branch, young MLK was initially reluctant to embrace the new name, feeling, perhaps, that it was too distinguished and prestigious for him. Branch notes that he “shrank from it, commenting publicly only once, after the Montgomery bus boycott, that ‘perhaps’ he ‘earned’ his name.”

In Branch’s words: “Reverend King supplied the wish and the preparation, but it remained for strangers in the world at large to impose Martin Luther King’s name upon him.”

We can see how Martin Luther King Jr eventually accepts the name change in his letters, that during the late 1940s and 1950s he signs as M.L. or simply Martin.

MLK’s last sermon

On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King held what would become his famous last sermon in Memphis, where he had returned to support the sanitation workers’ strike.

It was an inspired speech, during which he invited listeners to travel through time and history with him and “Go by the way that the man for whom I’m named had his habitat, and [...] watch Martin Luther as he tacks his 95 theses on the door at the church of Wittenberg.”

Changing a Birth Certificate in 1957

In 1957, Martin Luther King officially revised his own birth certificate. It was a straightforward process: on July 23d of the same year someone simply crossed out the name Michael and replaced it with “Martin Luther, Jr.”

The new name was written in black ink next to the old one.

How to Change the Name on a Birth Certificate Today

If you want to change the name on your birth certificate in this day and age, you must follow a more official and more complicated process. Unfortunately, it is not as easy as pulling up a file and crossing a name with a pen.

Steps to legally change your name include:

  1. Obtaining permission from a local county court, which includes filing a petition, paying the processing fees, and explaining your reasons during a court hearing
  2. Petitioning the relevant Vital Records office to make the necessary changes to the original birth certificate

If you wish to change the name of a child under 1 years of age, you can simply send a complete and signed birth certificate correction to the Vital Records Office of the state where the birth occurred.

Please note: specific state laws apply to both step 1 and 2. This means that you should first check what requirements and supporting documentation apply to your case before making your petition.

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