Americas ambitious mission to democratize and reeducate West Germany also meant that Germans were exposed and open to American discourses on freedom and democracy to a much larger degree than other Europeans. Thus, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Germans followed the struggles for civil rights taking place in the U.S. with a great interest and a keen eye.
Moreover, tens of thousands of Berliners greeted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he visited West and East Berlin in September 1964. Invited by Mayor Willy Brandt to come to the city which had only one year before prepared a triumphant welcome for President John F. Kennedy, King completed a whirlwind tour in his only two and a half days in Berlin. Most importantly though, King used the opportunity to extend his spiritual message of brotherhood to the situation of Berlin in his sermon at the Waldbuehne, arguing that although city “stands as a symbol of the division of men on the face of the earth,” it was clear that “on either side of the wall are god’s children and no man-made barrier can obliterate that fact.”
King even went a step further and compared the civil rights struggle in the U.S. to the political struggle of the divided city: “Here in Berlin, one cannot help being aware that you are the hub around which turns the wheel of history. For just as we are proving to be the testing ground of races living together in spite of their differences, you are testing the possibility of co-existence for the two ideologies which now compete for world dominance. If ever there were a people who should be constantly sensitive to their destiny, the people of Berlin, East and West, should be they.”
For Germans of all ages, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became an icon of civil and human rights during the Cold War who exposed America’s failure to fulfill its democratic promise. When he was murdered on April 4, 1968, Germans across the country gathered in mourning to them, King represented a voice for a better America that spoke to people’s aspirations worldwide. When Barack Obama addressed more than 200,000 enthusiastic Berliners during his presidential campaign in 2008, the German press therefore evoked not only the memory of John F. Kennedys visit to the city in 1963 but also that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the following year.
For further reading see:
Katja Gelinsky, “German Lessons. Obama was not the first: Martin Luther King too was enthusiastically welcomed in Berlin,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (November 26, 2008)
Supported by St. Mary’s Church (Evangelische Kirchengemeinde St.Petri-St.Marien), Berlin, Germany