Dr. King Spoke in Berlin 44 Years Before Senator Obama

University of Chicago US history professor Jane Dailey has an interesting July 30, 2008 article (h./t. howstupidblog.com) in the Chicago Tribune about forgotten speeches made by Dr. King in Berlin more than four decades ago. Dailey begins by pointing out that Senator Obama accented in his recent trip to Berlin that no one who looked like him had been able to speak there until now. Yet

in September 1964 an American who “looked like” Obama addressed a capacity crowd at the Waldbuhne, an open-air concert space in Berlin. At the invitation of West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at a commemoration ceremony for President John F. Kennedy, who was and remains a hero in Berlin for his denunciation of communism and the Berlin Wall.

She notes that Dr. King not only spoke in west Berlin, like President Kennedy had the previous year, but also courageously and successfully pressed to speak in east Berlin, unlike Kennedy:

There are many photographs of Kennedy’s 1963 speech at the Brandenburg Gate and of Kennedy gazing over the wall into East Berlin. King did more than look: He went. Invited by an East German church official, King was determined to speak directly to East Berliners. The U.S. State Department was equally determined that he would not. The American embassy confiscated King’s passport and recalled his German guide and translator. Undeterred, King went to the wall.

But Dr. King exhibited great courage and countered the U.S. attempts to keep him from speaking:

Three hours later, King preached a sermon of non-violence and universal brotherhood to an overflow crowd in East Berlin’s Marienkirche, praising the American students who had demonstrated in the American civil rights movement that they “would rather go to jail than live with degradation but without equality” and promising the East Germans that “we will [all] be free one day.”

It is significant that this act in the early pressure on east European Communism does not make its way into high school and college textbooks. We see here the great commitment of African Americans to expanding the often limited and/or rhetorical frame of “liberty and justice.” African Americans have probably done more to expand that old American frame than any other group of Americans. Then Professor Dailey assesses why Senator Obama’s camp was not eager to note Dr. King’s earlier speech in Berlin:

It is noteworthy that in Obama’s speech—a speech that invoked the speeches of several Americans in Berlin in addition to JFK—there was no echo of King in Berlin. Was it an oversight? Perhaps, but it was, nonetheless, an oversight that reveals certain racial truths about the politics of our time.

Why is that?

White politicians need leave no stone unturned in their efforts to associate themselves with King’s legacy in particular and the civil rights movement in general . . . . Rather than claim King’s legacy, the first African-American presidential nominee has to keep a steady distance from the tradition of activism and the struggle for equality that he embodies. Why? Because he needs the votes of white Americans who still often view civil rights as corrosive of their own interests and privileges.

A provocative point, indeed. We still live in an extraordinarily racist country where African American politicians seeking moderate/liberal white voters have to be careful not to offend white political sensibilities by reminding them too frequently that they are African American. So long as the whites inclined now to vote for Senator Obama view him as “an exception to his race,” as the old white racist line goes, then they may vote for him. But the more these whites see him as a too-Black man, the less likely it seems they are to vote for him. And the media constantly remind us that racism is supposedly dead in the US.