Everyone knows about John F. Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech in front of the Berlin Wall in June of 1963. But how many remember Martin Luther King's extraordinary visit to Berlin on September 13, 1964, when he preached before crowds in both West and East Berlin?
King was invited to Berlin by Willy Brandt and he arrived in the divided city just as 21 year-old Michael Meyer was shot by East German guards as he was trying to escape to the west. Although struck by several bullets, Meyer was rescued through an act of heroism by an American soldier. The incident had an impact on King, who hurried to the site of the rescue in the Kreuzberg section of Berlin.
King then preached a sermon to 20,000 West Berliners at an outdoor arena and attended a memorial sevice for John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated just 10 months before. But King wasn't finished: he wanted to go into East Berlin. The US State Department tried to prevent him from crossing the border by confiscating his passport, but King presented his American Express Card and was allowed passage. He preached to an overflow crowd at the Marienkirche and then gave an impromptu sermon at the Sophienkirche where he was mobbed by autograph seekers. There had been no official announcement of King's visit by the East German authorities, but the news spread quickly by word of mouth.
Although Martin Luther King delivered the same sermon in East Berlin as had he had in the West, the words - especially words like "freedom" and "civil disobediance" - had a powerful resonance with the crowd in the East. And KIng spoke directly about the Wall:
"May I say that 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. 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."
You can read Martin Luther King's extraordinary sermon "East or West - God's Children" in its entirety here.
While King's brief visit to East Berlin caused a sensation there, there was no mention of it at all in Neues Deutschland or Junge Welt or any DDR press outlets.
Twenty-five years after Martin Luther King's visit, the East German regime collapsed, in part due to the non-violent mass demonstrations modeled on the Civil Rights movement in America.