Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man who touched the lives of billions of people around the globe. Someone that every child learns about in school. As a leader of the American Civil Rights movement, he organized peaceful protests that led to the end of legal segregation in the United States.
But even in Germany, Dr. King’s words impacted countless people.
In September 1964 – one year after his historic “I Have a Dream” speech– Dr. King was invited to Berlin to attend a memorial ceremony for President John F. Kennedy, who had recently been assassinated. At the time, Berlin was newly divided with the foundations of the Wall having been built only three years earlier.
Dr. King accepted the invitation from West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt. And on September 13, 1964, Dr. King addressed an audience of 20,000 Germans at the Waldbühne stadium in West Berlin.
“It is indeed an honor to be in this city, which stands as a symbol of the divisions of men on the face of the earth,” he told the crowd. “For here on either side of the wall are God’s children and no man-made barrier can obliterate that fact. Whether it be East or West, men and women search for meaning, hope for fulfillment, yearn for faith in something beyond themselves, and cry desperately for love and community to support them in this pilgrim journey.”
Dr. King also compared the hardships that African-Americans faced in the United States to the clash between communism and democracy in Berlin. He said, just as the US “is 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.”
While in West Berlin, Dr. King visited a neighborhood in Kreuzberg and saw the bullet holes in a home where East German border guards had shot a young man that was trying to flee earlier that day.
Crossing the border was not on Dr. King’s official agenda for that day, but he managed to do it anyway. A few hours after delivering his speech in the West, Dr. King crossed the border over to East Berlin, where he delivered the same speech twice more. Surprisingly, he was able to cross over at Checkpoint Charlie without being stopped – even though he did not have a passport on him.
Word about Dr. King’s visit spread quickly in the East and thousands of people gathered to hear him speak. He was particularly popular among the young generation.
“My friends and I heard that he was going to speak in Mitte and we knew we had to be there,” Hans-Joachim Kolpin, who was a 15-year-old schoolboy at the time, told Deutsche Welle. “We’d listened to his ‘I have a dream’ speech on the radio the previous year, and we loved everything to do with America, from chewing gum and Elvis Presley to ‘Bonanza’. We couldn’t believe that someone so prominent was actually bothering to come and talk to us! The Wall had been built three years before, leaving us effectively imprisoned. We felt forgotten by the world, insignificant. No one ever showed any interest in us – but the great Martin Luther King was coming to East Berlin! We couldn’t believe it.”
Among the audience was a young Joachim Gauck, who went on to serve as the president of Germany from 2012 to 2017.
Dr. King’s visit to Germany inspired Germans for many years to come, and his words continue to resonate in the hearts and souls of its citizens.
“The speeches Dr. King gave – both in East and West Berlin – left a deep and lasting impression on everyone who heard them,” German Ambassador Emily Haber said in a video on the history of German reunification. “His message of reconciliation, of nonviolence, of defense of freedom and civil rights resonated with Germans. And generations drew inspiration from that.”
By Nicole Glass, German Embassy