Martin Luther King, Jr. in Berlin – East and West!

MLK in Berlin 1964

Martin Luther King, Jr. (left)
at the Berlin Wall in 1964.

Photo: Landesarchiv Berlin

I’m still stunned. How could I never have heard of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s visit to Berlin? He even outdid JFK and Reagan by not only going to West Berlin in 1964, but crossing the Berlin Wall into East Berlin – where he gave not one, but two sermons!

Why did Barack Obama fail to mention this not so minor detail during his own 2008 Berlin speech at the Siegessäule? A fellow African-American he greatly admires paid a Cold War visit to both East and West Berlin, and Obama not only ignores it, but evokes two white guys by saying: “I know that I don’t look like the Americans who’ve previously spoken in this great city.” No wonder MLK in Berlin is one of the best kept secrets in modern history.

Even with Google, Bing and all that, it took me hours of searching to find any concrete information about King’s Berlin trip – and most of it was in German. That’s even more ironic when you realize that the East German media never uttered a word about King’s historic visit to the GDR. Sure, King fit many things the communist German government liked; hell, even the FBI labeled MLK a commie. But on the other hand, Rev. King kept saying things about democracy, freedom and breaking down barriers. So when King, named for the great German Protestant reformer, spoke at two Lutheran churches in communist East Berlin (to packed houses!) people had to find out about it solely by word of mouth, and they never read anything in the newspapers or saw anything on TV about King’s unusual visit. (But I haven’t found a lot about it in the western media either. I’d still like to check on what appeared in 1964.)

There are several reasons why I’m still in shock over this gap in my historical awareness. Number one, I was a teacher of German for many years. I was constantly on the lookout for any German hook I could use to interest my students. (That’s how I got into the whole German-Hollywood thing.) I attended many foreign language conferences over the years. I don’t recall ever seeing a session on “MLK in Berlin” for German teachers. (My students were always getting the two Martin Luther persons confused, especially the ones who had never heard of the German guy.) When Black History Month or the King holiday rolls around, American German teachers are always looking for some possible German connection, besides Martin Luther (1483-1546). Did I simply miss something?

The other reason I’m surprised by this is the fact that I practically traced his footsteps in Berlin in 1969, a mere five years after Martin Luther King, Jr. – with a lot less fanfare, of course. There were a few other differences. King rode in a limo and I was on foot and in a bus. King had been invited by West Berlin mayor Willy Brandt; I had no formal invitation. I had a passport when I crossed through Checkpoint Charlie; the US Embassy had confiscated King’s passport, so he just flashed his American Express card at those silly East German officials! I made two trips across the Wall in 1969, and he only made one. But wow, what a whirlwind tour he had!

After flying into West Berlin (along with Ralph Abernathy) and landing at Tempelhof on September 12, King arose the next morning and went to the site of a Wall shooting incident that had just happened in Kreuzberg. (The escapee was seriously wounded, but lived.) Then he did the usual visit to the Wall. (There’s a cool photo of him peering over the Wall with Abernathy.) Next was a commemorative ceremony at the Schöneberg city hall where the late John F. Kennedy had given his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech the year before. After that, King spoke to 22,000 folks gathered at the Waldbühne amphitheater in West Berlin for the “Tag der Kirche” (Day of the Church).

By now I’d be dozing off with jet lag, but not Rev. King. Despite having his passport and an interpreter detained by American officials, the Baptist reverend has an invitation from a Lutheran minister in the GDR that he wants to accept. So his limo drives up to Checkpoint Charlie. Even in the GDR, King’s face ought to be known. The civil rights leader was Time magazine’s Man of the Year (not “Person”) for 1963, and he’d been in the news a lot. After Berlin, he was on his way to have a private audience with the pope! But no, the East German border officials aren’t sure what to do. They make a call to higher-ups. OK, King needs to show some sort of identification. “Will this do?” he asks, holding up his credit card. (Think: “Don’t leave home without it!”) Fine, off they go down Friedrichstraße into East Berlin.

At the Marienkirche (in the shadow of the giant TV tower on Alexanderplatz today, but construction of the tower didn’t begin until 1965) King gave a sermon to an overflow audience. So many people wanted to hear the black American speak that a second church (Sophienkirche) was added at the last minute. According to some accounts, King also spoke with African students at nearby Humboldt University. That evening, he visited a Lutheran hospice. Exhausted, King didn’t cross back into West Berlin until after midnight.

After just one full day in Berlin, on September 14 Martin Luther King, Jr. flew to Munich and then on to Rome to meet Pope Paul VI. And I never knew a thing about it before now.

More | Martin Luther (the “Reformer”) and Martin Luther King in Berlin

Request: Do you know something about King’s 1964 Berlin visit that isn’t mentioned here? Am I the only one who never knew about this? Feel free to leave a comment.