50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s Visit to Berlin

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Berlin, September 13, 2014
Ambassador John B. Emerson

Mayor Frank Henkel, Ladies and gentlemen, I am honored to share this special occasion with you.

Dr. Klimke, welcome to Berlin,

Fifty-one years ago, at a time of deep division in America, the voice of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rang out across America’s capital city.  Speaking to the thousands of people who participated in the March on Washington to rally for freedom, Dr. King called on America to make freedom a reality for all of God’s children.  His message reverberated around America and sent ripples across the oceans and throughout the world.

Fifty years ago, a little over a year after his “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King visited the divided city of Berlin, Germany’s former and future capital.

The core of Dr. King’s legacy was his appeal to conscience that touched hearts and opened minds, a commitment to universal ideals — of freedom, of justice, of equality — that spoke to all people, not just some people.  That’s why he marched with white auto workers in Detroit.  That’s why he linked arms with Mexican farm workers in California.  That’s why, when he came to Berlin upon the invitation of Mayor Willy Brandt, he insisted on crossing the Wall into the East.  Berlin he said, “was the hub around which turns the wheel of history.”  The State Department did not approve, not because they disapproved of his message, but out of concern for his safety and also a disruption of the delicate and dangerous balance of force in Cold War Berlin.

Dr. Klimke will tell you more about the one and a half days that Dr. King spent here in this city.  One of the events of our shared history that has really only recently become very well-known, is Dr. King’s trip over into East Berlin, using only his credit card as ID.  He preached to overflow crowds in the Marienkirche and the Sophienkirche.  By the way, tomorrow morning, I will participate in a memorial service at the Marienkirche; and my deputy, Jim Melville, will participate in a service at the Sophienkirche.

The sermons he delivered were the same as the one he delivered earlier the same day at the Waldbühne in West Berlin, but his words had special meaning for East Berliners.  It was clear, Dr. King said, that “on either side of the wall are God’s children, and no man-made barrier can obliterate that fact.”

Dr. King was a black preacher with no political rank.   His example, however, inspired men and women around the world and gave them the courage to refuse the limitations of the day and fight for the prospect of tomorrow.  But Dr. King would have been the first to say that the movement in which he played such a central role depended on the men and women whose names never appear in the history books –-all those who, through countless acts of quiet heroism and civil courage, helped bring about changes few thought were ever possible.

Both the civil rights movement and the movement that brought down the Berlin Wall taught us that we are not trapped by the mistakes of history.

Today, five decades after the March on Washington, and 25 years after the Fall of the Wall, both of our countries are more free and more fair.  And yet we still see hatred and intolerance and discrimination.  We see scenes in places, like Ferguson, Missouri, that recall memories of Dr. King’s trials.   Our work, Dr. King’s work, is not yet complete.

In the first 13 years of this new century, the world has been tested by war and by tragedy.  Our world is growing smaller, but somehow it is still hard for human beings to recognize how similar we are; that we all hope for the chance to live out our lives with some measure of happiness and fulfillment for ourselves and our families.  In many troubled neighborhoods across my country and yours and in countries around the world, too many young people still grow up with not enough hope and too few prospects for the future.

Three months after he visited Berlin, Dr. King travelled to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.  In his speech, he said, “I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present condition makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him.”  Today on this 50th anniversary – one of the many special moments on the chronology of our shared history, let us honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by reaching for the world that ought to be.

Auf Deutsch:  Amerikadienst