Martin Luther King Day Names: People and Places

January 17, 2019 Linda Rosenkrantz

By Linda Rosenkrantz

To commemorate Martin Luther King Day this year, we look at some of the most important names in this towering Civil Rights hero’s personal and social activist lives, from his birth in Atlanta, Georgia to his death in Selma, Alabama.

GeorgiaDr. 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, referencing Martin Luther. The lushly appealing name Georgia has many worthy associations in addition to the southern state: painter Georgia O’Keeffe and songs like “Sweet Georgia Brown and “Georgia on my Mind.” A number of celebs have chosen it for their daughters, from Harrison Ford and Mick Jagger to Eric Dane and Rebecca Gayheart. Atlanta is another, more distinctive, possibility.

AlbertaMLK’s mother was Alberta Christine Williams King, an educated woman who was close to and highly respected by her son, who gave his fourth child Bernice the middle name of Albertine in her honor. The vintage female derivative of Albert, Alberta hasn’t made a comeback yet—but it could. Royal roots include the middle name of a Queen Victoria daughter, after whom the Canadian province was named. Alberta was a US Top 200 name from the late 1880s until 1940. And Bertie could serve as a cute nickname, just as it does for Albert.

BookerKing attended Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta where he was on the school’s debate team, winning an oratorical contest during his Junior year. The earlier African-American leader, who rose to prominence from slavery, has been inspirational to baby namers, particularly during his lifetime, and could also appeal to writers and R&B music fans. Thandie Newton has a son named Booker, which is` currently #837 on Nameberry.

EbenezerMLK’s grandfather began the family’s long tenure as pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, followed by Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr, who served as co-pastor. Most modern parents would cut straight to the appealing short form Eben, bypassing the Biblical name associated with Scrooge.

CorettaMartin Luther King, Jr married Coretta Scott on June 18, 1953. An ardent advocate for racial equality, social justice and peace, and women’s, children’s and gay rights, she was a leading participant in the Civil Rights Movement, consulted with world leaders and authored several books. A diminutive of the popular Cora, Coretta could make a worthy tribute name to this extraordinary woman.

YolandaYolanda Denise was the eldest of the Kings’ four children.  This exotic name—of Greek origin, meaning ‘violet’ and commonly used in Spanish-speaking communities—was heard on the TV show Firefly and is a character in the Julia Alvarez novel How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.

DexterDexter 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 of the jazzy-cool names for boys, with the great on-trend nickname Dex. Cool musician couple Diana Krall and Elvis Costello have a son named Dexter, which now ranks at #447 in the US and 86 in England.

BayardBayard Rustin was Dr. King’s first regular advisor on nonviolence and worked with A. Philip Randolph on the March of Washington Movement in 1941 against job discrimination. Bayard is an unusual name meaning “russet-haired” that was used by William Faulkner for a character.

MontgomeryKing led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and helped organize the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965. The distinguished Anglo-Scottish surname Montgomery has recently turned from fusty and formal to the edge of cool, along with other 3 and 4-syllable boys’ names. Long associated with sensitive midcentury actor Montgomery Clift, earlier antecedents include French and British military heroes. Bringing it into the contemporary world is young Montgomery Moses Brian Baron Cohen, son of Isla Fisher and Sacha Baron Cohen.

SelmaThe name Selma would play a pivotal role in the trajectory of Dr. King’s life. Selma, Alabama was the starting point of the 5-day march to Montgomery in which MLK led thousands of nonviolent demonstrators. Selma is a name that’s been in baby-name limbo, along with cousin Thelma, for several years. The name of a character on The Simpsons, it was also the title of the acclaimed 2014 film about the Civil Rights March. It’s a surprising #112 in France and a not so surprising #11 in Sweden and 15 in Norway.

MahaliaDuring the 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.” A pretty Biblical name meaning “tenderness,” underused probably because it is so tightly tied to the Queen of gospel singers.

MemphisThe 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 building of the Egyptian pyramids and the Graceland home of “The King,” and Memphis is becoming an increasingly popular option for both genders. Actress Jemima Kirke and singer Jason Aldean used it for their sons and Bono for his daughter—back in 1991. It’s currently in #575 position for boys.


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