Names Honor Martin Luther King Jr

Names Honor Martin Luther King Jr

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, today we look at some of the most important names in the inspiring civil rights hero’s public and private life – from his birth in Atlanta, Georgia to his death in Memphis, Tennessee.

Girl Names


Dr King gave his fourth child the middle name Albertine, after his mother Alberta, who played a significant role in the running of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Tragically, she too was assassinated six years after her son. Vintage Alberta was a US Top 200 name from the late 1880s until 1940, and was recently revived by actor Jamie Dornan, who chose it for his third daughter in 2019.


A key figure in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches, Amelia Boynton Robinson was also the first African American woman in Alabama to run for Congress. She was awarded the Martin Luther King Jr Freedom Medal in 1990. Amelia is a stylish contemporary classic: currently Top 10 in the US, UK, Canada, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.


Martin Luther King Jr married Coretta Scott on June 18, 1953. An ardent advocate for racial equality, social justice, and women’s, children’s and gay rights, she was a leading figure in the civil rights movement, consulted with world leaders and authored several books. Coretta is a rare and sparky diminutive of Cora which leapt to #523 in the US in 1968, the year of King’s assassination.


A close colleague and confidante of Dr King, Dorothy Cotton served as director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s education program, on which she worked alongside Septima Clark. Dorothy is a sweet storybook name which looks poised for a revival, especially since Scarlett Johansson used it in 2014.


King was born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1929. He was originally named Michael Luther King Jr after his father, who later changed both their names in reference to religious reformer Martin Luther. Georgia has several artistic associations beyond its obvious geographical namesakes, including painter Georgia O’Keeffe and songs like “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Georgia on my Mind.” Atlanta is another, more adventurous, possibility.


During Dr King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, it was Mahalia Jackson who shouted behind him “Tell them about the dream!” And at his funeral, his good friend sang his favorite hymn, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Mahalia is a beautiful Biblical name with a melodious sound that might appeal to lovers of unique but established names – it hasn’t ranked in the US Top 1000 since 1881.


The “Voice of the Civil Rights Movement” Odetta Holmes (known by her distinctive first name) sang “O Freedom” at the 1963 March on Washington. She was a key figure in the American folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s. More familiar in its French form Odette, this striking name combines strength and sophistication.


Selma, Alabama was the starting point of the five-day march to Montgomery in which Dr King led thousands of nonviolent demonstrators in protest for voting rights. Selma has been in style limbo for years, but it received a small boost in 2014 following the release of the movie Selma, based on the events of 1965. It’s currently at #16 in Norway, and #12 in Sweden.


The name Yolanda is shared by the eldest of the Kings’ four children, also an activist, and their only grandchild, born in 2008. At its peak in the late 60s and early 70s, Yolanda has a retro feel and a lovely nature-related meaning: “violet”. The Kings’ daughter was also known as Yoki.

Boy Names


Bayard Rustin was Dr King’s first regular advisor on nonviolence and an important architect of the 1963 March on Washington, as well as a pioneering gay rights activist. His striking name, which also appears in Faulkner’s The Unvanquished, comes from a French word meaning “russet red”.


Baptist minister and educator Benjamin Mays was a personal mentor to Martin Luther King Jr at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Mays gave the benediction after King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963, and he also delivered the eulogy at his funeral, which included the famous line “No man is ahead of his time”. Benjamin is a strong and sensitive Biblical classic which has ranked in the Top 10 since 2015.


King attended Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta, named for the influential political leader and orator who became an important voice for former slaves and their descendants. Booker is an energetic surname name with other appealing associations, including musician Booker T. Jones and the literary Booker Prize. Actress Thandie Newton chose the name for her son in 2000.


Dexter Scott King was the second son born to the Kings. He was named for the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, where King became pastor in 1954. Dexter is one of the coolest jazz-inspired names for boys, with its sharp but laid-back nickname Dex. Dexter ranks just inside the Top 500 in the US and just outside the Top 100 in the UK, and was chosen by musicians Diana Krall and Elvis Costello for their son.


Dr King’s grandfather began the family’s long tenure as pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, followed by Martin Luther King Sr and then King himself, who served as co-pastor. Eben is the appealing short form, which bypasses the unfortunate association with Dickens’ Scrooge.


Hosea Lorenzo Williams was a civil rights leader who worked closely with Dr King, organizing nonviolent protests under the auspices of their Southern Christian Leadership Conference. A Hebrew name meaning “salvation”, Hosea is an underused Biblical option that deserves wider attention.


If you want to name a child directly for Dr King, King itself is a more fashionable choice today than Martin or Luther. The royal word name ranked at #158 in the US last year and has risen rapidly through the ranks over the past 15 years. Kingston is an even more popular elaboration, at #117.


The Tennessee city of Memphis was the scene of Martin Luther King Jr’s tragic assassination on April 4, 1968. The name does have some more positive associations, like the Egyptian pyramids and the Graceland home of Elvis Presley. Memphis is becoming an increasingly popular option for both sexes: currently at a historic high of #431 for boys.


King led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and helped to organize the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965. This distinguished Anglo-Scottish surname has recently turned from fusty and formal to the cutting edge of cool, boosted by its use by actors Isla Fisher and Sacha Baron Cohen and the cute nickname Monty.

For ideas and inspiration on how to participate in Martin Luther King Day of Service even while in isolation at home, see this excellent guide from CNN.

About the Author

Linda Rosenkrantz

Linda Rosenkrantz is the co-founder of Nameberry, and co-author with Pamela Redmond of the ten baby naming books acknowledged to have revolutionized American baby naming. You can follow her personally at InstagramTwitter and Facebook. She is also the author of the highly acclaimed New York Review Books Classics novel Talk and a number of other books.