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.


  1. GDAWG

    I would love to hear from Obama’s people and their explanation for this “lapse of memory” of this historical moment as it relates to Dr. King’s speech in Germany. I suspect, however, that your explanation concerning Obama and his folks is well founded in its assertions. In light of the circumstances in which we live, even today, as you noted, this is quite sad indeed. Thanks for the thoughtful and well reasoned reminder of Dr. King’s exceptionalism.

  2. Seattle in Texas

    Heh GDAWG, I would argue that Obama can only speak for him self. I think it would be unfair for others to do so on his behalf. Though, I see this is being great ammunition that serves to divide communities and instill doubt among Obama’s supporters, and direct votes over to McCain…(unfortunantely not very many look to the Green Party as a serious alternative…). But not that I myself wish to add fuel to this fire, (I am committed to voting for Obama all the way through knowing he is human and has faults like anybody else and am/was prepared for the media and republican trash that is inevitable in terms of trying to destroy his campaign in many different ways) but it should not be forgotten that Du Bois also spent time in Berlin…. I can understand the disappointment….

  3. GDAWG

    SiT: it seems to me that BO, a supposedly race neutral or post racial politics concoction, has a pattern of seemingly preaching to Blacks concerning the moral failures in some of us, but remain eerily silent on the moral failures of others, not of the ‘Black’ persuasion. Not exactly post racial or race neutral is it? Wingnuts talk about him throwing his white GM “under the bus” But this is gross exageration of what he said concerning her.

  4. Seattle in Texas

    I know and no, not post racial or race neutral. This nation can’t get there traveling on the path and trajectory it’s currently on, in my opinion. And even one who is as optimistic as Obama, cannot get us to that point. Winona LaDuke suggested the mentality of this nation has not even reached that of at about the same level as the four year old child. That is the approximate age when children learn to say “sorry” with genuine meaning behind it, though not always. They begin to realize actions that are right from wrong, take personal on responsibility in various ways, and so on. This nation has far to go and cannot magically jump to the “colorblind” world without addressing and correcting for the past and ongoing wrongs. While I feel Obama has been working out of the colorblind framework (which while in the correct context is representative of the ideal world we would like to have–yet, because our nation is inherently racist and refuses to seriously confront its own faults and history, etc., it is impossible…I grew up in perhaps the “colorblind” capital…even with how it was done as I was growing up, it’s still virtually impossible because the racism is stronger than the colorblind ideal Dr. King preached…it ends up being used to reinforce the racist stuctures in very different ways, etc.), I think he is falling into the pitfalls and trappings of the ideology. It can’t be done with out addressing the past and ongoing oppressions dervived directly from our past (which are have been presenting devestating consaquences well beyond our nation, culturally, economically, environmentally, etc.). I know many are not fans of LBJ, but I would like a president that can take us back to where he left off (with relation to national policy(s) and omitting the international policy(s)). I believed Obama could be the closest to do that. And perhaps he may still be. I know right now he is trying to win the presidency–in terms of who can realistically win, I would like him in office for the next 8 years. I think the some of the strageties he’s used to gain, if not keep ongoing support, illustrates how incredibly racist this nation is and what he needs to do to have any chance at all of winning. I cannot imagine being in his shoes, nor would not want to be. On one hand I would say frusterations with Obama are more than justified, but on the other, that is exactly what the Republican Party is counting on to win (among other things). It’s not in any way pretty, and the world will only become uglier (including globally) if McCain wins. While Obama is putting his life at risk just by running for president, I believe if he does become president he will carry through with many positive and necessary adgendas he has promised–at which point, I believe his life will only be further in danger. And what he has been talking about are only mild changes in comparison to those of the 60’s…. I don’t know GDAWG, I understand the frusterations. And I think being critical is necessary, but losing hope in the process is dangerous…. These are supposed to be exciting times and it makes me angry that the power of the long held and ongoing white supremacy inherently embedded in this nation makes it virtually impossible in a variety of ways and for numerous reasons…This nation has a very long way to go to get to the “race neutral” and/or “post racial politics”…. (and talk about bad fathers…I think it’s crappy that white fathers who abandon their families, etc. get off scott free from the criticism, and there are obviously huge numbers…)

  5. The last point made in the original post explaining the difference in white politicians who attempt to get close to King’s legacy vs BO who distances himself doesn’t quite get to the point I don’t think.

    BO, like other Blacks in the US who need white votes has to downplay his blackness to get white votes. Whites assume that he (and other Black politicians) will have allegiance to Blacks and will not vote for Black politicians. OB must prove to whites that he will have greater allegiance to whites than Blacks.

    On the flipside, whites understand that they have engaged in historical oppression and thus have a framework in which to understand a white politician’s attempts to constantly associate him/herself with Dr. King’s legacy. White associations to the legacy don’t scare white voters because they assume that the white politician is just being politically correct and does not mean it. They are right, of course.

    It is interesting how these psychologies work.

  6. Joe Author

    IS, I think that is sharp analysis and adds some good insight. One thing too is that whites have sanitized Dr. King’s legacy to fit their weak notions of equality and justice. They also like to mock him and his legacy in racist jokes backstage, according to our data from white diaries……

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