Since 1971, Martin Luther King Jr. Day has been celebrated in the United States to commemorate the life, work, and tragic untimely death of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The holiday provides us with an opportunity to reflect on Dr. King’s myriad contributions to American and global society in the pursuits of racial, social, economic justice, and world peace.
Soon after the young seamstress Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, Martin Luther King Jr. organized the now-famous Montgomery bus boycott that eventually led to the end of racial segregation on those buses. His organization of the boycott and its results catapulted Dr. King into the national spotlight in which he would continue to fight for social justice for the rest of his life.
Dr. King’s achievements in the realm of social justice truly make him an American hero. We celebrate him for adopting Gandhi’s tactics of nonviolent resistance as well as Thoreau’s ideas about civil disobedience. You may have studied his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in school, and listening to a recording of his rousing “I Have a Dream” speech is a common way to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
But did you know that in addition to Dr. King’s heroism as a peaceful warrior for social justice, he was also part of a family business?
Martin Luther King Jr. was the third generation of his family to serve as pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.
His maternal grandfather, Reverend Adam Daniel Williams, became pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1893. Shortly after his daughter Alberta married, Reverend Williams took his new son-in-law on as assistant pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
After Williams died of a stroke, his son-in-law took on the duties of head pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and in a real succession success story, the son-in-law increased the size of the congregation exponentially—from several hundred to several thousand.
The son-in-law’s name was Michael King, but after a trip to Europe in the 1930s where he visited sites of importance to Protestant leader Martin Luther, Michael began referring to himself as Martin Luther King. And he began calling his son Martin Luther King Jr.
In his life and in his ministry, the senior King objected to the culture of racial discrimination. In 1936, Martin Luther King Sr. led a march in protest of voting rights discrimination.
Getting the junior King to follow in the senior King’s footsteps was not exactly smooth sailing. In fact, in his early adolescence, the younger King questioned his father’s teachings and focused his attention in school on matters related to English and sociology.
But the differing mindsets did not prevent Martin Luther King Jr. from following in his father’s footsteps when it came to attending Morehouse College, which his maternal grandfather, coincidentally, also had attended. And by the time he entered his last year at Morehouse, MLK Jr. had decided to go into the ministry.
After getting his doctorate in divinity, Martin Luther King Jr. served at his father’s side as co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, and from there, as we know, he both followed in his father’s footsteps in the family business and went on to make history.