Editor’s note: This article first appeared at The Washington Post
When we think of Martin Luther King Jr.’s great speeches, we don’t think of Berlin. And when we think of great American speeches in Berlin, we think of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan; we don’t think of King. Yet, 50 years ago, the civil rights icon delivered historic remarks on both sides of the Berlin Wall.
Unlike the Kennedy and Reagan speeches, King’s appearances weren’t broadcast. And he offered no triumphant phrase comparable to “tear down this wall.” Perhaps that’s why his Berlin trip has been almost completely overlooked by even King admirers and Cold War scholars. But these remarks were dramatic, moving, and deftly constructed — at a time of high tensions between East and West Berlin and between Eastern and Western powers. Fifty years on, they deserve another look, as an example of King preaching a U.S.-style civil rights message, but one adapted to German realities and to the constraints King himself faced.
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On Sept. 13, 1964, King addressed 20,000 West Berliners attending an outdoor rally at Waldbühne stadium. Then he crossed the border at Checkpoint Charlie and delivered much the same speech — minus a few key passages — to 2,000 people packed into East Berlin’s Marienkirche. Why he was let through, without a passport no less, remains unclear.
East German authorities may have hoped that his appearance would be helpful to them ideologically. King had never been a vocal anti-communist, leading some to suspect that he was soft on communism and susceptible to being exploited or duped.
No doubt communist propagandists liked to exploit America’s dismal history of race relations. For the Soviet Union, this racism was ideal for arguing that democratic capitalism was in no way superior to communism; to the contrary, Moscow insisted, the American system was morally inferior. America’s racist past was an incessant drumbeat in publications from Pravda to (here at home) the Daily Worker. Figures like King and Angela Davis were celebrities in the communist press. By contrast, the communist world insisted that there was no racism in the U.S.S.R. Moscow absurdly portrayed itself as a racial utopia, unlike the racial hell in its Cold War counterpart.
“The African American in the United States was the oppressed figure, and this was to demonstrate the consistent evil of the West,” says Alcyone Scott, one of King’s translators on the Berlin trip. “They were pleased it was being exposed. That was their attitude. And that was the official position. . . . And when you have a civil rights movement pointing that out, they could naturally make propaganda hay out of it.”
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And so King seemed to frame his Berlin remarks with an understanding of what he might be able to get away with and how he might be interpreted by his East German audience. He shied away from cataloguing the colossal injustices subjugating those east of the Iron Curtain. At the same time, he called out Berlin as “a symbol of the divisions of men on the face of the Earth” and repeatedly emphasized that reconciliation was God’s will. He made implicit comparisons between the suffering under segregation in America and the suffering in segregated Berlin. And he laid out a model for resistance and reform.
King began his speech by striking a bond with his German audience, noting that his parents had named him after the legendary German reformer. “I am happy to bring you greetings from your Christian brothers and sisters of West Berlin,” he started. “. . . Certainly I bring you greetings from your Christian brothers and sisters of the United States. In a real sense we are all one in Christ Jesus, for in Christ there is no East, no West, no North, no South.”
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