Martin Luther King Day and the German-American Connection

On January 16, the nation observes the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Just as he is honored for his leadership in the civil rights movement, so he is also remembered for his inspiring “I have a dream speech” in Washington D.C. But not everyone knows why a boy named Michael King Jr became Martin Luther King Jr.

It all goes back to King’s father, a minister, who visited Germany in 1934. So moved was he by the message of Martin Luther that he changed his, and also his son’s, names. The boy became the activist, Martin Luther King, Jr. and in the famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that set out his views on injustice, he referred to the Great Reformer: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.”

During 2017, the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, no country outside Germany is celebrating more than the U.S.A. After all, something like one in six Americans claims German ancestry. Many are Lutherans, whose forebears left Europe in the early 1700s for America, where they could make a better life and practice their religion freely.

Soon there were so many Lutherans in the Colonies that Henry Melchior Muhlenberg was asked to leave LutherCity Halle (Saale) to formalize America’s first Lutheran church body. After arriving in Philadelphia in 1742, he set out to link dozens of small communities along the East Coast. But the Muhlenberg influence was not confined to the church. His sons had a considerable impact on U.S. history, too, serving in both the Continental Army and the U.S. Congress. And the name lives on at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA.

Martin Luther’s protest in 1517 has inspired, and continues to inspire, Americans. Thousands are planning to visit LutherCountry in 2017, to walk in Luther’s footsteps. Those, who cannot travel to Germany in the celebration year, can still join in the commemorations in a very 21stcentury way: online.

Throughout this Reformation anniversary year, Lutherans in the U.S.A. and around the world are sharing stories about their churches and their communities. They are uploading imaginative photos to a special website: There are photos of young and old, choirs and youth groups and interiors and exteriors of churches.

There is also a map of the world, showing where all these communities are. So, churches can see who else from their town, their state and their country is also celebrating the Jubilee. The best photos will win prizes and all the photos that have been uploaded will be projected on to a public screen in the heart of Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany as part of the celebrations. This is, of course, the town where Luther’s protest 500 years ago changed world history, influencing people down the centuries, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

To share photos on social networks, use #LutherCountry.