On the third Monday of each January, we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and this year, it's particularly fitting that his Bible will be one of those used in the second inauguration of Barack Obama. But few know that we could have easily found ourselves commemorating the life of Michael Luther Branham, Jr.
Martin or Michael?
The confusion over his first name stems from his father who was born as and spent the early portion of his life going by Michael, or Mike. Around the late 1920s, he started using Martin. There are several stories circulating regarding the reason, including one claiming that his own father revealed to him that Mike was just a nickname and he had actually been named Martin Luther (supposedly after the German leader of the Protestant Reformation or a pair of uncles, according to different versions), but whatever the cause, names were more fluid back in the days of casual record-keeping, so he was able to make the adjustment without much fuss.
Sources say that his son's birth certificate reflected his original name of Michael, but given that his son was a junior, it's no surprise that now-Martin Sr. would want his son's name to morph along with his own. In fact, in the 1930 census, both father and son are recorded (with spelling errors that so frequently adorn such records) as Marvin L. King.
King or Branham/Brannam?
Shifting to Dr. King's surname, this had been consistent in his family for roughly half a century before his birth, but for at least some of the period between Emancipation and the 1880 census, his family had gone by Branham/Brannam (just to add to the confusion, family members are recorded with both spellings even in the same document). Those who do African American genealogy will be nodding their heads in recognition at this, as they'll have seen this pattern in other families as well.
In the 10-15 years following Emancipation, there was some experimentation with surnames, so it's not unusual to find a family with one name in the 1870 census and an entirely different one in the 1880. Perhaps this is because some initially assumed the name of former owners and later thought better of it, but at least some of it seems to have occurred due to a desire to adopt a name they preferred for various reasons. Widespread respect for George Washington, for instance, might at least partially explain why 90 percent of those bearing the name of Washington today are African American.
Though we don't know why, in the case of Dr. King's family, the name King was eventually selected over Branham. We can see this by comparing the 1870 census (left) where they are listed as Branham and the 1880 census (right) where they are listed as King (the red arrows show how tidily the first names of individual family members match up in both records). In every census thereafter, they went by King, so this is the proud name the great man inherited, but it could just as easily have been the other way around.
It's true that Branham is not quite as overtly regal a name as King and Michael Luther doesn't include the echo of another historic figure, but there's little doubt that we would all admire Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. just as much if his name had been Michael Luther Branham, Jr.
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