Berlin was perhaps destined to be a meaningful place for Martin Luther King Jr.; it was the city that, in some ways, gave him his name. And for a man who preached against walls that “divided humanity,” a 1964 visit to the then-three-year-old Berlin Wall, which divided the Soviet-occupied East side of the city and the U.S.-occupied West side of the city, offered a chance to add another layer to that significance.
The visit came about after West Berlin’s Mayor Willy Brandt invited King to participate in a memorial ceremony for President John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated the year prior, less than six months after his own famousvisit there. King also received an invitation to speak in East Berlin from Heinrich Grüber, who had been a pastor at a church there and a prisoner in a concentration camp for three years during World War II for openly criticizing the Nazi Party.
It would be risky for King, as Grüber had driven out because of his anti-government views, and had been living in West Berlin himself. “I write in the bond of the same faith and hope, knowing your experiences are the same as ours were,” he wrote in a letter to King, according to historian Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson’s account of the visit. “During the time of Hitler, I was often ashamed of being a German, as today I am ashamed of being white,” Grüber wrote. “I am grateful to you, dear brother, and to all who stand with you in this fight for justice, which you are conducting in the spirit of Jesus Christ.”
King decided to take that risk and accepted both invitations.
On Sept. 13, 1964 — two months after the Civil Rights Act was enacted and a month before he won the Nobel Peace Prize — King addressed 20,000 people at a rally at the outdoor stadium Waldbühne in West Berlin. He also visited the spot where, earlier that day, East Berlin guards had shot and wounded aresident who was trying to climb over the wall into West Berlin. King also delivered the same sermon at St. Mary’s Church in East Berlin, which was over its 2,000-person capacity, and then gave another, unscheduled speech to the overflow crowd at Sophia Church, similarly over its 2,000-person capacity.
And, in a city with a division that could not be avoided, he said that, while he was no expert in German politics, he knew about walls.
“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 East Berliners. “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.”
He talked about the similarities shared by the clash between African Americans and white people in the United States and that between communism and democracy in Berlin, which he described as “the hub around which turns the wheel of history.” Just as America 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,” he said. Quoting Ephesians, he spoke of his assumption that “wherever reconciliation is taking place, wherever men are ‘breaking down the dividing walls of hostility’ which separate them from their brothers, there Christ continues to perform his ministry of reconciliation.”
The sermon was “particularly moving” to East Berliners, especially “his passages on the readiness of Negroes to suffer and if necessary die for their faith and his emphasis on common struggles, common faith, and common suffering,” according to a telegram rundown of King’s trip that the U.S. Mission in Berlin sent to the Secretary of State’s office, European embassies and the Moscow embassy.
The U.S. State Department nervously monitored the visit, worried about anything that would heat up the Cold War or undermine its agenda to prove democracy was the better system of government.