Martin Luther King Jr. in Berlin

Martin Luther King Jr. in East and West Berlin

German Connections – Black History
When Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1929, his birth certificate listed his name as “Michael King Jr.” – after his father Michael King Sr. How and when did Michael King become Martin Luther King?


Martin Luther King, Jr. (left) and Ralph Abernathy (right) at the Berlin Wall on September 13, 1964. King had been invited to the German capital by Berlin mayor Willy Brandt. King also visited East Berlin during this trip. (Details below.) PHOTO: Landesarchiv Berlin

From Atlanta to Berlin
Martin Luther King, the father of the civil rights leader, was born Michael King on December 19, 1899 in Stockbridge, Georgia, the eldest son of nine children in a poor family that made its living as sharecroppers.

In 1926 King began his studies to become a Baptist minister at the Morehouse School of Religion. That same year, on Thanksgiving Day, he married Alberta Williams in the Ebenezer Baptist Church that her father headed in Atlanta. Michael and Alberta King eventually had three children: a daughter, Willie Christine (b. 1927), Michael Luther Jr. (later Martin Luther King Jr., 1929–1968), and another son, Alfred Daniel Williams (1930–1969).

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After the death of Alberta’s father, King took over as the pastor of the Ebenezer Church in March 1931, a position he would hold for four decades. He was a respected religious leader, one who kept his church going even during the difficult years of the Great Depression. Soon the “young Rev. King was the best-paid Negro minister in the city.”¹ In 1934 he was able to join ten other Baptist ministers for a trip to the Holy Land and Europe, which included a visit to Berlin, Germany, where the Fifth Baptist World Alliance Congress (Kongress des Baptistischen Weltbundes) was being held in August at the Sportpalast [see note below] on Potsdamer Straße in Berlin-Schöneberg. (1934 was the 100th anniversary of the first Baptist congregation in Germany, founded in April 1834 by Johann Gerhard Oncken in Hamburg with just seven members.) King may have traveled to Berlin knowing that the next Baptist World Alliance gathering was to be held in Atlanta in 1939.

MLK postage stamp

This 33-cent US postage stamp depicts Martin Luther King, Jr. and commemorates the civil rights March on Washington, where he made his famous “I have a dream” speech.

Hitler was now in power in Germany and Nazi banners were hanging in the large hall beside Christian crosses. Hitler himself had spoken during Nazi rallies at the Sportpalast (torn down in 1973). Later, in 1943, it was the site where Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels declared “total war” against the Allies. (Allied bombs damaged the Sportpalast in 1944, but it was rebuilt during the war.) While the German press noted the racially integrated audience (there was a delegation of 30 black Baptists, including Rev. King), and a church commission on “Racialism” strongly condemned the color bar and anti-Semitism, many of the American Baptists in Berlin viewed the non-smoking, non-drinking Hitler and the Nazis in a more positive light. But even most German Baptists failed to see the danger the Nazis posed to them and the world. The Nazis achieved a propaganda coup that made people think, erroneously, that the Nazis were accepting of the Christian faithful and their churches.

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The Gradual Name Change
However he may have felt about Nazi Germany, King returned to Atlanta so inspired by his journey and the great Lutheran reformer Martin Luther, that he decided to change his name and that of his son. But the changeover was not done overnight. In fact, there was never any legal name change, and Georgia law did not require it.

Over the years there was a transformation of the names from Michael King to Michael Luther King and finally Martin Luther King. Close friends and family continued to call both men Mike or M.L. It was not until July 1957 that the Michael King Jr. birth certificate was amended to read Martin Luther King Jr.²

Martin Luther King Sr. died of a heart attack in Atlanta on November 11, 1984 – 16 years after the assassination of his son in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968.

Note on ‘Sportpalast’: Various sources in German identify the site of the 1934 Baptist congress as the Berliner Sportpalast, but an online Time magazine excerpt (dated Aug. 13, 1934) names the “Kaiser-Damm Hall,” which is a form of the German “Kaiserdamm-Halle.” However, I could find no other source in English or German that mentions that site (no longer standing). If anyone can help here, please let me know.

The Trip to Divided Berlin in 1964
In September 1964, at the invitation of Willy Brandt (then West Berlin’s mayor, later West German chancellor) 35-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to West Berlin to speak at a ceremony commemorating the assassinated US president John F. Kennedy who had visited West Germany in 1963.


During his brief visit to East Berlin in 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a sermon here in the Protestant St. Marienkirche. PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

Early in the morning of September 13, the day after King’s arrival at Tempelhof Airport, East German border guards had shot and wounded 21-year-old Michael Meyer as he was trying to escape from East Berlin. He swam across the Spree River along the Berlin Wall but found he was still in East Berlin. After being struck by several bullets, Meyer was rescued by an American soldier who heroically managed somehow to pull him over the Wall to safety. When King learned of the incident, he hurried to the Kreuzberg district to witness the scene of the rescue himself. The Wall was then only three years old. (In September 2010, a memorial plaque was placed at the site of the Berlin Wall shooting on Stallschreiber Straße to commemorate Dr. King’s visit there in 1964.)

After a ceremony at the Schöneberg city hall where JFK had given his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, King spoke to an audience of over 20,000 people in the Waldbühne amphitheater near the Olympic Stadium. The occasion was “Tag der Kirche” (Day of the Church).

Obama in Berlin2008
“I know that I don’t look like the Americans who’ve previously spoken in this great city.” Really? – On July 24, 2008 presumptive presidential candidate Barack Obama drew enthusiastic crowds in Berlin for his televised speech at the Siegessäule (Victory Column), just down the street from the Brandenburg Gate. (The Germans made him keep his distance from that historic landmark.) His address was well-received, but in it he neglected to mention something important: the other famous African-American man who drew crowds not only in West Berlin but also in East Berlin. Obama did not mention or even hint at Martin Luther King’s Cold War era visit to Germany 44 years earlier. For whatever reason, Obama preferred to evoke memories of Kennedy and Reagan rather than the iconic black man he claims to greatly admire. Whether intentional or an oversight, the omission was odd, especially since his target audience was Americans, and Obama didn’t want his speech to sound too “European.”

“My dear Christian friends in East Berlin”
Not content to speak only to the West Germans, King insisted on visiting East Berlin – against the wishes of the US government. Even after the American embassy had confiscated his passport and detained his interpreter, King (accompanied by an unnamed lady and Ralph Zorn, an American pastor working in West Berlin) arrived by car at Checkpoint Charlie, where he presented his American Express card when asked for ID. After the Americans had exchanged the obligatory 25 East German marks for 25 West German marks, they drove the short distance to the historic St. Marienkirche (St. Mary’s Church) in East Berlin, where he offered a sermon to an overflow crowd.

Although it was the same sermon he had delivered earlier at the Waldbühne amphitheater in the West, the East Berlin audience’s reaction to his words of “freedom” and “civil disobedience” was dramatically different. His appearance was literally a godsend for the East German clergy, who were constantly confronted with opposition from the GDR government. In fact, the pastor of the Marienkirche, Werner Arnold, had recently been imprisoned by the authorities for his outspoken criticism of the Berlin Wall and helping smuggle people across the border.

Why King was in Berlin
“Dr. King’s visit to Cold War Berlin in September 1964 had been prepared by Willy Brandt’s 1961 visit to the U.S. and his meeting with King. Another important facilitator was Provost Heinrich Grüber, the former pastor at East Berlin’s St. Mary’s Church. Grüber had been an active opponent of the Nazi regime… Invited by U.S. churches, Grüber began to travel across the U.S. delivering sermons in the following years. He also met with Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and encountered the African-American struggle for civil rights firsthand. Perceiving this struggle as similar to his resistance to fascism, Grüber took up correspondence with Dr. King, already inviting him to Berlin in the course of 1963.”


This 2010 plaque in Berlin commemorates Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to a Lutheran hospice in 1964, now the Hotel Albrechtshof. The signature at the top is a copy of King’s entry in the hospice guestbook. PHOTO: © Hyde Flippo

Dr. King also took time to speak with black students at East Berlin’s Humboldt University, not far from the Marienkirche. Because of the standing-room-only audience at the first church, a second appearance was arranged at the last minute for the Sophienkirche, near the Brecht Theater. (In both cases, people learned of King’s visit only by word of mouth.) King was mobbed by autograph seekers before he left the church. That evening, invited by his host Gerhard Schmitt, an East German clergyman, he visited a Lutheran hospice near the Friedrichstraße train station, met with other clergy in the hotel’s restaurant, and signed the hospice guestbook. In May 2010, a memorial plaque was installed on the building, now the Hotel Albrechtshof, to commemorate Dr. King’s visit.³

It was midnight before King finally returned to West Berlin. No mention of his amazing visit to the capital of the GDR ever appeared in the East German media. GDR citizens were not allowed to hear or read words such as: “Here on either side of the Wall are God’s children and no man-made barrier can obliterate that fact.”

Back in the western half of the city, an exhausted Martin Luther King spent the night at the Berlin Senate’s guesthouse and flew from West Berlin to Munich the next day. Several days later he had a private meeting with the pope before returning to Atlanta. In December he would fly to Oslo to accept his Nobel Peace Prize.

Next | American Black History and Germany

1. Quote from Martin Luther King Jr. (2002) by Peter John Ling.
2. From the Introduction to The papers of Martin Luther King Jr, Volume 3 by Martin Luther King (Jr.), Clayborne Carson, Ralph Luker, Penny A. Russell. Also see: Four Things You Didn’t Know About Martin Luther King.
3. My thanks to Anke Rommel of Berlin for providing this new bit of information about Dr. King’s 1964 visit. (Aug. 2011)

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