Martin Luther King Senior—An Unheralded Christian, Civil Rights Leader, and Father

by Ken Lambert , Christian Examiner Contributor |

(WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)Martin Luther King Sr. in Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, January 14, 1979.

Everyone in this country knows something about, and respects, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Well, almost everyone respects him.) King Jr. is one of only 4 men (along with Lincoln, Washington, and Columbus) who have a national holiday in their honor. What many people do not know is the life of his father, and the influence that Senior had on Junior. Without the life and Christian emphasis of Martin Senior, it is unlikely that Jr's life of leading towards racial equality would have occurred, and this country could have looked very different today.

The apple not falling far from the tree

This is a "history" column that morphs into a "Christian Living" article. Such is often the case when studying history, and is one of the main reasons why we study it. It is very apparent that fathers in this country have increasingly let their children, especially sons, down over the past 45 years. Many are absent. Many that are present are not a positive influence to their kids. This column shows what a strong positive influence can have on a son, on a generation, and even on a country.

Martin Senior was born just as "Martin King," and eventually became a Baptist minister in Georgia. In a trip as an adult to Germany, he became so enthralled with the life and story of reformer Martin Luther, that he legally had his name changed to Martin Luther King. And, he also changed the legal name of his young son to Martin Luther King Jr. What an influence Luther must have had on Martin Senior! Clearly the courage and convictions of Luther helped King Senior (and Jr.) to take a strong (and dangerous) stand for the Biblical dogma of equality.

Senior was an early leader in the South towards racial equality, and his son Martin Junior—also a Baptist minister—followed in his footsteps. Many would say Junior took his father's lead to another level. Indeed, maybe Junior was a more profound speaker and organizer; but his father set the tone for his life.

(As an aside, it is interesting that most, if not all, of the civil rights leaders were devout Christians. I am not aware of any avid atheists who were instrumental in the racial equality movements of the 1950's and 1960's, but if someone can prove me wrong—please do so. It is peculiar that today's various atheist organizations seem to condemn Christianity, but of course they are strong public supporters of civil rights and equality.)

Unfortunately, Martin Senior saw and faced many tragedies in his life

This is so often the case with strong Christians; it seems as if God tests Christians more than others. Maybe Christians can handle more adversity. Martin Senior fought through the kind of adversity that most could never comprehend. His son Martin was shot and killed in 1968, which led to many race riots throughout the country. His other son died in a drowning accident just 1 year later. And, if that was not enough, his own wife was shot and killed (in church) in 1974. Senior pushed through all this and lived until 1984. He remained active throughout the 1970's as a minister, and also as a leader within the civil rights movement. Much can be learned from the elder Martin Luther King—maybe the most important of which is to be a positive role model for your children. You never know who your child may grow up to become.

– Ken Lambert has been writing for both secular and religious publications for several years. He co-authored the book "Top 10 Most Influential Christians Since the Apostles" and holds a Doctorate in Ministry. He resides in southern New Hampshire.