Obama was not the First: Martin Luther King Too Was Enthusiastically Welcomed in Berlin
WASHINGTON, November 26, 2008
When Barack Obama gave a speech in Berlin this past summer, he remarked, “I know that I don’t look like the Americans who’ve previously spoken in this great city.” Was this intentional or a mistake? In any case, alluding to his skin color in this way, Obama excluded a prominent black American that Berliners had enthusiastically greeted before him. From September 12 to 14, 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited the city, invited by Mayor Willy Brandt. Among the civil rights activist’s appearances was a sermon held before about 25,000 people at the Waldbühne, a sports stadium in West Berlin.
King’s trip to Berlin a year after President Kennedy’s legendary speech at the Brandenburg Gate is one of the most widely forgotten events of German-American history. This is not just a random lapse of collective memory. Overall, the transatlantic dimension of the American civil rights movement has hardly been explored. A joint project of the German Historical Institute (GHI) in Washington, DC, the Heidelberg Center for American Studies (HCA), and Vassar College in New York intends to address this gap. Historians Maria Höhn, a professor at Vassar College, and Martin Klimke of the (HCA and GHI) recently presented some results of this research program, “The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany” at the GHI in cooperation with the Humanities Council of Washington. In addition, they curated an exhibition of historical images and texts that documents King’s appearances in Berlin, as well as encounters between black GIs and Germans from 1935 to the late 1970s.
According to Klimke, King’s visit to the divided city strengthened his conviction that the African American struggle against segregation was only one facet of a global problem. Undoubtedly influenced by his experiences in Berlin, King, Klimke claims, presented his vision of a “World House” and called for a “worldwide fellowship” in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech three months after this trip. In his sermon at the Waldbühne, King had already compared the struggle to end racial segregation to the battle of the city’s two political ideologies.
Despite opposition from the State Department, which had King’s passport revoked, the civil rights activist also made appearances in East Berlin. With the help of American minister Ralph Zorn, who was working in West Berlin, King managed to cross the border at Checkpoint Charlie using a credit card instead of his passport. Then, on the evening of September 13, 1964, he held two sermons. “[H]ere, on either side of the wall are God’s children and no man-made barrier can obliterate that fact,” he declared to the people.
While the West German press enthusiastically celebrated King’s visit, the East German daily newspapers did not even mention it. The American press, by contrast, acknowledged King’s trip to Berlin primarily in the context of commenting on the severe words he had used against the Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Goldwater’s election campaign, King had remarked, bore “dangerous signs of Hitlerism.” Thus comparing Nazi Germany to racial segregation in the United States, King, Maria Höhn argues, resorted to an instrument that black activists and the black press had been making use of since as early as 1933 in the struggle for equal treatment.
However, the decisive boost for the African American civil rights campaign came from black soldiers who, segregated in the American army, experienced postwar Germany as “a breath of freedom” (Colin Powell). Being able to do what was forbidden them at home in the very country that was to be educated in democracy and tolerance caused many blacks like writer William Gardner Smith to vow “never [to] go back to the old ways again.” Many black veterans, Höhn maintains, first became active in the civil rights movement on account of their experiences in Germany. The German student movement further fueled many GIs readiness to protest. In the eyes of activists such as the president of the German Socialist Student League (SDS) K. D. Wolff, America’s (the enemy’s) oppression of African Americans transformed these GIs into revolutionaries par excellence. Accordingly. Daniel Cohn-Bendit once commented on his fellow protester: “KD’s happiness would have been complete if he, too, could have been black.”
At the federal convention in September 1967, the SDS officially declared its solidarity with the “Black Power” movement in the struggle against American imperialism and capitalism. By demonstrating in front of American barracks, visiting pubs frequented by black GIs, and using female students who dated black soldiers, student leaders managed to get African Americans to join in many of their activities. Even though this alliance broke apart in the early 1970s, the solidarity campaign had a significant impact on America and on Germany, Höhn avers. A joint protest of students and GIs on July 4, 1970, in Heidelberg had a “direct consequence”: it prompted the Nixon administration to undertake extensive reforms to combat racism in the American army, which a group of black congressmen in Washington praised as a “new American revolution.” In a parallel development, the government of German Chancellor Willy Brandt took up measures to reduce German discrimination against black GIs, particularly on the part of landlords and pub owners. At least as important as this was the return of “race” as a topic in public discourse in West Germany. It was not until the country dealt with the situation of African American GIs that a debate about xenophobia and Germany’s own racist past could be opened.
“African American Civil Rights and Germany” at the German Historical Institute, Washington, DC. Through January 15, 2009