What was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s first name?

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The question seems to answer itself: “What was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s first name?” But it’s not what it seems.

Last November, I had the opportunity to tour the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. I was in town for the annual Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD) conference and the Gallery was just a few blocks south from the hotel. One of the Gallery’s temporary exhibits was devoted to Martin Luther King, Jr. to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It was on the first panel of this exhibit tracing his life, that I learned his true first name.

Now, it seems obvious that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s first name was “Martin.” Indeed, being a “Jr.,” that must also have been his father’s name, right? Well, not exactly.

You see, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was born, his father gave him his first name: “Michael.” Their full names were “Michael Luther King,” Sr. and Jr., respectively. His father would change both of their names to “Martin” when Dr. King was about five years old.

I learned this on the very first panel of the excellent exhibit, which began with a photo of Dr. King and his family when he was a young boy. It made me think about how much else I don’t know about this great man.

Today, there is a blog post from 2011 that is going viral entitled: “Most of you have no idea what Martin Luther King actually did.” As surprising as finding out his first name was, the post challenges our conventional understanding of what should be remembered on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

For almost everyone who stops to think about Dr. King today, it will most likely be to remember his “I Have a Dream” speech from the March on Washington. The speech certainly deserves to be remembered, and we should re-commit ourselves to his dream of children of all races, religions, and [my addition] abilities joining together to love one another as equals. But, the blog post challenges us to remember what Dr. King actually did beyond giving speeches and marching.

It explains how Dr. King’s work changed the way African-Americans live in the United States. It can be difficult to appreciate a time in our relatively recent history when people were not just segregated by where they could sit on a bus, but could be lynched, raped, brutalized, without any legal consequence–even with legal approval–simply because the abuser was a white person and the victim was black. Dr. King changed what was accepted in parts of society, to being recognized as unacceptable.

Dr. King made this change by teaching others not to be afraid. To not be afraid to confront conventional wisdom. To not be afraid of the beatings that happened simply because a black man or woman sat at a lunch counter. By confronting what was feared to be the worst abuses against them–the beatings, the fire hoses, the imprisonment–those in the civil rights movement found that the worst was not as bad as they feared. And, it emboldened them to continue to push for change.

What the blog writer does not highlight, however, was why these followers of Dr. King could not be afraid, could have the courage to confront their worst fears. He alludes to those in jail singing hymns, but leaves out the central core of why Dr. King argued for civil disobedience.

The video below is of a speech I found through a YouTube search for Martin Luther King (I didn’t try Michael Luther King). In it, Dr. King is giving a sermon in which he explains why people are called to civil disobedience:

They are not called to disobey all laws, but only those that violate a higher law. For Dr. King, an ordained minister, that higher law was the law of the Judeo-Christian God. For some, in this ever-more secularized world, that may be an obstacle, since they do not accept there being a higher law from a spiritual God. But, Dr. King’s message applies even to the non-believer.

For, Dr. King explains, we are called to disobey that which is not right, because it is right to fight against what is not right. This notion of right action can be found in Buddhism and Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics: you act rightly because it is the right thing to do. And, Dr. King also gives another source of support for those being called to be brave: You are not alone.

You are not alone, he assures his congregation, when they are confronting what is wrong in the world. For them, and for Dr. King, this is because he believes that God is with them–using the biblical example of the three men in the fire who were spared death because of their faith. But, even for those without faith, Dr. King’s words apply.

His sermon is entitled “But if not,” referring to the Bible verse from the same story that their faith was not a “but if not” faith. The three men had faith not only if things worked out their way. “But if not,” but if they were not spared because of their faith, they would still have faith. Again, they believed and acted based on what they believed was right and acting against what they believed is wrong. In the Bible story, a fourth man joins them in the fire to save them. They were not alone. But, even for non-believers, Dr. King’s almost mantra-like repeating of “you are not alone” applies to those who stand up for what is right.

In what is hopefully not an awkward forcing of these concepts to meet this blog’s purpose, the truth of Dr. King’s words remain for those going through prenatal testing.

There is a lot of “should” in prenatal testing: you should have it, you shouldn’t have it; you should have this test, no, you should have that test; you should risk a miscarriage and have an amnio; you shouldn’t risk a miscarriage and decline the amnio; you should terminate after a diagnosis, you should continue your pregnancy.

If you are going through prenatal testing, these competing “shoulds” will push and pull, and be voiced by those in authority, like your doctor, or from your family and close friends. In this moment, in deciding what to do, remember what Dr. King told those who were charged with confronting their worst fears: do what is right because it is right. And, when you do, you will not be alone.

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