In 1934, an African-American Baptist minister named Michael King made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and attended an international conference in Germany, where he learned about a native son and Protestantism founder Martin Luther. Inspired by the life and deeds of the 16th-century monk, King changed both his name and that of his young son, who became known to the world as Martin Luther King Jr.
Thus marked the first and clearest connection between the two famed men. But while they were from different generations and countries, they had much more in common in their paths to a place in the history books.
Luther and King wanted to overturn the powers that be
Frustrated by the hypocritical practices of the Church, Luther was particularly incensed by the selling of "indulgences," in which people essentially paid for the grace of God to fund such lavish projects as the new St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. He eventually determined that there was no need for a controlling and corruptible Church hierarchy; one could achieve salvation simply by putting their faith in Christ and looking to Scripture as the central religious authority.
King's anger wasn't geared toward the Church, but at a system of racial segregation that had become ensconced in everyday life and law since Reconstruction, one acutely felt by a highly intelligent and able African-American boy raised in the Jim Crow South.
Both arrived at just the right time
The seeds of Reformation were planted well before Luther first opened a Bible, as dissenters like 14th-century English theologian and academic John Wyclif (also spelled Wycliffe, among other variations) had previously spoken out against the Church's abuse of power. However, Luther benefited from the relatively recent invention of the printing press, which allowed his ideas to quickly spread across Europe.
Similarly, efforts to organize and empower African Americans had been around since before King was born, but the courageous stand of Rosa Parks presented a ripe opportunity for King to enter the limelight with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and assume leadership of the burgeoning civil rights movement.
They risked their lives by defying authorities
The story of Luther dramatically nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church to demand change may not be true, but the widespread distribution of the document had the same effect. He was excommunicated by Pope Leo X in early 1521 and staunchly defended his beliefs before a hostile audience at the Diet of Worms a few months later, the charges of heresy carrying the genuine threat of a death sentence.
King's method of civil disobedience, meanwhile, made him a prime target of both the police and violent extremists. He was arrested nearly 30 times during his dozen-plus years in the public eye and survived an assassination attempt a decade before the one that took his life April 4, 1968.
They were acclaimed for their writing and communication skills
Along with his 95 Theses, Luther penned both the Small and Large Catechisms as the foundation for the new Christian denomination, Protestantism, and helped make the Bible a household item by translating the Old and New Testaments into German. By the time of his death in 1546, he was the author of a third of all German-language books in publication.
King also produced a large trove of written works, including the book Why We Can't Wait and his seminal "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."
Extending those lines of communication, both men were acclaimed for their oratorical skills. King is more famous in this arena, thanks to surviving footage of his powerful speeches, but Luther also developed a reputation as a compelling lecturer at the University of Wittenberg.
Luther and King's movements moved on without them
Luther's calls for freedom from the rigid doctrines of the Church unsurprisingly took on a life of their own. Within a few years of the release of 95 Theses, both the German nobility and peasantry co-opted his message to justify their rebellions. And while he codified his beliefs in the formation of what became Protestantism, reform continued through the acts of King Henry VIII and other British monarchs, as well as the teachings of religious leaders like John Calvin.
King, meanwhile, found his non-violent methods falling out of favor during the turbulent 1960s, with an increasingly fractured and impatient base turning to the more radical voices of Malcolm X, Huey Newton and Stokely Carmichael.
Luther and King later faced controversies
Whether overwhelmed by ailments or emboldened by years of escaping the wrath of authorities, Luther threw all restraint to the wind over his final decade. His 1543 work On the Jews and Their Lies summed up his feelings about that group, though he also had harsh words for the Pope, "godless monks" and other members of the clergy.
King's case is more nuanced. While he never succumbed to age-inflicted bitterness — in part because he was killed before turning 40 — he did pivot to causes that failed to strike a unifying chord, including an anti-Vietnam War crusade and a "Poor People's Campaign" for economic change. Toward the end of his life, a major poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans held an unfavorable opinion of the civil rights icon.
They changed the future of religion and civil rights
By standing up to the Catholic Church, Luther is credited with sparking the Reformation and opening the door to a modern world built on concepts of individuality, religious liberty and self- government. Approximately one-eighth of the seven and a half billion people worldwide today, more than 900 million people, follow the religion he founded. And one of the major branches of Protestantism is named after Luther: Lutheranism.
King's call to duty also brought tangible changes, from the 1956 Supreme Court ruling that ended segregation on city buses to the Civil Rights and Voting Acts of 1964 and '65. Arguably the most important figure from the American civil right movement, he is one of the few non-U.S. presidents to be awarded a monument at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and the only one to be honored with a national holiday.