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Martin Luther King, Sr. was given the name Michael King at birth. Shortly after touring the Holy Land, he changed his name to Michael Luther King, and then to Martin Luther King. (This source seems to be what other sources I've been able to find are based on.) This changes gave him the initials MLK, which is familiar to students of Semitic languages as something of a pun: the root M-L-K means “king” (מלך, ملک; no, Semitic roots are not that straightforward, I'm simplifying). It's possible of course that this was a coincidence, but given that Martin Luther King, Sr. was a minister, and that he had just been on a trip to the Holy Land (where he might have studied some Hebrew, if it hadn't studied it already), it seems like it might have been intentional.

Are there any documents supporting or refuting this idea?

Edit: Based on some of the comments, I believe it may not be clear that I know that Martin Luther the most famous Protestant theologian in history. Undoubtedly the “Martin Luther” part comes from that; that is not a competing hypothesis. The cleverness of any pun comes from its multiple semantic and phonetic associations. The question is whether there are documentary sources, closer to the event, showing that MLK, Sr. was aware of the potential for this pun. Examples would be letters that he wrote, or contemporary sources commenting on the pun, such as might suggest that the pun was understood and/or intended by MLK, Sr.

Edit 2: This has been a frustrating experience, but I'll just offer one further clarification for anyone who might be interested. This business about Hebrew/Semitic roots having particular meanings does not require the least expertise in the language. It's the kind of general knowledge feature of the language that would be covered in the first couple chapters of a book on Hebrew, or even in a course that touched only tangentially on Hebrew. (I believe my first exposure to the idea was in a course on Middle Eastern humanities, for instance.) So this doesn't require some obscure knowledge of Hebrew; it's a commonly discussed feature of the language.

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    ",Sr."? // Where does this idea come from? What has your research shown you? Like, about his Hebrew studies? Have you checked biographies? Aug 12 at 11:53
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    More specifically, what's wrong with his WP entry that reflects also what's stated on kinginstitute.stanford.edu/news/… namely, that after Holy Land he went to homeland of Protestantism, Germany, and then changed names? If you doubt this often repeated story, (like foreword to autobiography!) please be more specific as to how you arrive at your theory. Aug 12 at 12:09
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    @Jos I was until I graduated. I strongly reject any suggestion of impropriety (or even of negative connotation) in the term “Semitic languages,” which is the accepted term—as far as I know, the only term—for a group of historically-related languages in the Afro-Asiatic family (Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Akkadian, etc.).
    – adam.baker
    Aug 13 at 5:50
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    @adam.baker Congrats. Tough subject, too difficult for me. (I barely manage Thai.) I see a LOT of people disguising their antisemitic rants behind 'Semitic' this or that. Makes one very suspicious. Hope you understand.
    – Jos
    Aug 13 at 6:18
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Short Answer

There doesn't seem to be any evidence for this. More likely, his visit to Berlin and sites associated with Martin Luther were factors, but there is no conclusive, documented evidence of this either. King Sr. himself said he choose the names of two uncles.

Nonetheless, although his autobiography makes no mention of him having studied Hebrew either at college or later in his life (though not during his time in the Holy Land), it is possible that he was aware of this possible pun on his name. I say possible because there are multiple possible meanings and scholars are by no means in agreement. Further, some of these possible meanings of MLK are not exactly positive. Consider also that the initials of many people can produce multiple possible alternative meanings, including unintended puns, so simple coincidence is a very real probability.


Details

According to this Washington Post article, citing Clayborne Carson, director of the King Institute and editor of The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.,

Scholars say there is no definitive account of why the senior King changed his name.

King Sr. himself said it was because he had uncles named Martin and Luther, and that the change was his father's wish. Carson suggests that the trip to Berlin (including visits to sites connected to Martin Luther) during the rise of Nazism had a major influence:

“It was a big deal for him to go there, to the birthplace of Protestantism,” said Carson... “That probably implanted the idea of changing his name to Martin Luther King.”...

...“But it seems likely he was affected by the trip to Berlin because that would have brought him in the land of Martin Luther. I think the obvious reason is Martin Luther sounded more distinguished than Mike King.”

In his foreword to the 2017 edition of Daddy King: An Autobiography, King Sr.'s grandson writes:

It is no coincidence that the greatest theologian of the twentieth century shares the name of the greatest theologian of the sixteenth century. Michael King was my grandfather’s original name, and Michael King, Jr., was the birth name of my uncle, but after traveling to Europe as a young Christian minister and learning of the philosophy and the protest reformation of the Christian church by Martin Luther, my grandfather returned to America and changed his name to Martin Luther King, Sr., and changed my uncle’s name to Martin Luther King, Jr., proof positive of the vision he held of himself and the vision he would plant inside his namesake son.

In his autobiography, King Sr. makes no mention of Hebrew although he most likely had some exposure to it during his time at Morehouse College. His visit to the Holy Land, however, is unlikely to have afforded him much (if any) time to study Hebrew there. Unfortunately, King Sr. is not specific on dates but the The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute gives the dates July 14, 1934 to August 10, 1934 for his trip to Europe and the Middle East. As the group also attended the 1934 World Baptist Conference in Berlin August 4–10, there would have been little time for studies in the Holy Land (or anywhere else, especially considering the amount of time they would have been 'on the road').

Finally, as LangLangC points out in his comment below, there are several possible puns or other meanings relating to MLK. Possibilities include Moloch, meanings such as 'to offer', 'to own', 'to rule' and 'to possess' and the word for 'sacrifice' in the Punic Language. In short, 'King' is but one many possible meanings of MLK, some of which he might not want to be associated with. You might find the etymology and theories section of the Wikipedia Moloch article to be of interest.

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    Would the downvoter care to explain? I have cited sources, including one well respected one. I think that my past actions on this cite have shown that I am open to constructive criticism and willing to improve my answers. Aug 12 at 13:08
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    To round this off (based on latest edit: QP seems to dismiss the current content of this A?): Perhaps go into the many 'puns' possible to 'read' mlk as 'has deeper cross-linguistic/semitic meanings': malik, moloch, mamluk…? (this kind of artistic & poetic interpretative reading is not what I'd support as 'reason for', but it's interesting in several dimensions. Aug 12 at 20:26
  • No, I upvoted this answer. I haven't accepted it yet because it feels wrong to accept and answer that says there's no evidence—even if that is indeed the case, I'd give it some time in case an MLK, Sr buff is aware of further evidence. (My edit was not in response to this answer, which is perfectly appropriate and demonstrates understanding of my original question.)
    – adam.baker
    Aug 13 at 5:48
  • @adam.baker Yes, it's always wise to wait a few days before accepting. I'm still searching but I doubt if I'll much more to be honest. Aug 13 at 7:09
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    @LаngLаngС Yes, I've been thinking about that. I'll be editing this shortly as he probably studied it at Morehosuse. Aug 13 at 23:20
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This answer attempts a reduction to the absurd, by taking the premise for granted, regardless of its actual truthfulness, and then endeavoring to locate various logical incongruities inherent within its main thesis.

Another viable avenue would be to boldly challenge the veracity of its underlying assumptions (such as the extent of King Sr.'s actual grasp of Hebrew, for instance, as suggested by LаngLаngС in the comment section below); however, this approach will not cover that particular line of thought, choosing to restrict itself merely to the former.


You are basically asking us to prove1 a negative, inasmuch as the internet, in its infinite wisdom, seems blissfully unaware of any such intent on King Sr.'s part. Let's start by stating the absolute obvious:

  • His surname was already King; as such, what meaningful purpose would adding a (somewhat obscure) Hebrew pun possibly have served ? He himself took a a hands-on, practical approach to scripture (as opposed to pursuing a more scholarly path), surrounding himself with social workers and serving the poor and downtrodden, rather than academics and Hebraists, who would undoubtedly have appreciated such mystic anagrams.

  • Michael the archangel is the prince of the heavenly hosts (Daniel 10:13, 10:21, 12:1). If Michael King Sr. would indeed have wanted a more royal name than the one he already possessed, why abandon it in exchange for Martin in the first place ?

  • Melchizedek, meaning king of righteousness, is a famous biblical character, carrying a very deep significance within Christian theology, inasmuch as Christ himself, the very founder of Christianity, is called an eternal priest according to the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5-7, referencing Genesis 14:18 & Psalm 110:4). As such, why change one's name from Michael to Martin, instead of Melchizedek, were that to have been the intent all along ?

  • Malcolm X, who oftentimes harshly criticized MLK Jr. for being too weak in his approach to civil rights, had his name changed to el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz upon converting to Islam. With Hebrew and Arabic being both Afro-Semitic languages, and Malik being the direct equivalent of the aforementioned Hebrew term, wouldn't such a choice be somewhat counterintuitive on his part, given his personal feelings on the matter ?

I'm not implying you're the only one to have ever suspected such a connection:

The Hebrew word for “king” is M L K (melekh). Though Martin Luther King, Jr. was taken far too soon, all Americans should be grateful that a King once walked among us.

Rabbi Jeffrey N. Ronald

Source.

but, with malak(h) and melek(h) being the four most common ways of spelling out the Semitic tri-consonantal root MLK, the following Google searches should, in theory, reveal a wealth of relevant information on the topic:

which, rather unsurprisingly, they don't (shocking, indeed!) — except, of course, for similar ad hoc observations on sites such as Reddit, for instance.


1 History being, first and foremost, a science, proofs are — or should be — normative, rather than optional.

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  • Or he could have simply changed his name to Malachi King, were he to have truly had such a fondness for the abovementioned Hebrew root.
    – Lucian
    Aug 13 at 15:50
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    3 things I don't quite grasp from this A: 1. What is the actual extent of Hebrew studies MLKsr did? His actual knowledge? Christian theology after some level can't do entirely without, but it depends on that level (IDK for this case MLK). 2. Change from Mike to Mart to honor Luther1517 & keeping M (+initials on kerchiefs), adding 'L' to K? 3. The Melchizedek angle eludes me. Is it: Why not choose any name with 'M' (or any biblical, like you seem to suggest with Malachi)? That could benefit from clarification. Aug 13 at 16:03
  • @LаngLаngС: (1). That would have been another good point of attacking the OP's logic; basically, my answer attempts a reduction to the absurd, by taking the premise as true, and then trying to find holes in it. (2) Why even honor Martin Luther at all, if royal names is what he's after !? After all, the latter was just a humble peasant's son. (3). The Melchi- in Melchizedek, just like Malachi, etc. are all expressions of the same Hebrew tri-consonantal root MLK.
    – Lucian
    Aug 13 at 16:33
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    Well, in this case I would prefer 'check & challenge assumptions' instead of "attacking" anything (you know that SE users tend to be easier offended than regular folk ;) // And anotehr reminder: Will those explanations be lifted from comments into A-text? Aug 13 at 18:31
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    @LаngLаngС: Done; as per your suggestion, clarifications have been inserted into the answer's main body.
    – Lucian
    Aug 15 at 16:57

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