Until recently, the story of the African-American civil rights movement has been told largely within the context of American history. Only since the collapse of the Soviet Union have scholars shown how U.S. foreign policy concerns and the competition with the Soviet Union forced policy makers in Washington to support the civil rights agenda.
What receives almost no attention in this Cold War interpretation, however, is America’s involvement in Europe, and the role that the expansion of the American military base system and the encounter with Germans after WWII played in the unfolding drama of the civil rights struggle. Yet, by bringing a segregated Jim Crow army to military bases outside the physical boundaries of the United States, America literally transposed its racial conflict and its actors onto foreign soil.
This exhibition shows how Germany emerged as a critical point of reference in African-American demands for an end to segregation and for equal rights. From as early as 1933, African-American civil rights activists used white America’s condemnation of Nazi racism to expose and indict the abuses of Jim Crow racism at home and to argue that “separate” can never be “equal.” America’s entry into the war allowed these activists to step up their rhetoric significantly and to call for an end to egregation. The defeat of Nazi Germany and the participation of African-American GIs in the military occupation only strengthened their determination. Drawing on the experience of soldiers stationed in Germany, these activists claimed that it was in post-Nazi Germany that black GIs found the equality and democracy denied them in their own country.
Once the civil rights movement gained momentum in the late 1950s, black GIs deployed overseas became crucial actors in the struggle. By 1960, sit-ins to integrate lunch counters were taking place not only in Greensboro, NC, but also in establishments on and around U.S. military bases in Germany. Because military deployments to Germany usually lasted 2 to 3 years, African-American GIs were able to establish contacts and often friendships within neighboring German communities. Beginning in the early 1960s, black GIs started to collaborate with German student activists in places like Frankfurt and Berlin to support demands for civil rights in the U.S. After Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to Berlin in 1964, the rise of the Black Power movement, and Angela Davis’s solidarity campaigns in both East and West Germany in the early 1970s, African American GIs only intensified their collaboration with German student activists to fight racism both in the U.S. military and in German communities.
By illustrating the untold story of African-American GIs and the transnational implications of the African-American civil rights movement, this exhibition hopes to advance a more nuanced and sophisticated sense of how America’s struggle for democracy reverberated across the globe. It presents the first results of a joint research initiative of the German Historical Institute, Vassar College, and the Heidelberg Center for American Studies at the University of Heidelberg.
Based on this exhibtion, our goal is to produce a comprehensive digital archive on this website dedicated to “The Civil Rights, African-Americans and Germany“ that includes documents, images, and oral histories.
Maria Höhn and Martin Klimke
* movie credits: Archiv / Berliner Verlag; Archiv für Soldatenrechte, Berlin; Barbara Klemm, Frankfurt; Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin; Bundesarchiv; Institut für Stadtgeschichte Frankfurt am Main; Landesarchiv Berlin (Collection: Bert Sass, Horst Siegmann, Karl-Heinz Schubert); National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), College Park, MD; Ramstein Air Base Documentary & Exhibition Center, Ramstein; ullstein bild – dpa.