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>> Martin Luther King at the Berliner Festwochen of 1964


When Berlin’s governing mayor Willy Brandt had meetings in the United States with both President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King in early 1961, much remained undecided, and a number of pivotal events were imminent. Willy Brandt invited the civil rights leader to Berlin, where – three-and-a-half years later – he would open the Berliner Festwochen. When Martin Luther King finally landed at Tempelhof Airport on 12 September 1964, he arrived in a city which had – since his last meeting with Willy Brandt – been divided into two parts by a wall. It was the eve of a Festwochen opening which was also a memorial event for John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated in November of 1963. Slightly earlier, in summer of 1963, Kennedy had made himself an unforgettable personality among Berliners with his profession of sympathy: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Now, Martin Luther King would attain a similar status, namely on the occasion of the 14th Berliner Festwochen, which was dedicated to an “exchange between the cultures of the West and Black Africa,” to cite the motto formulated by Director Nicolas Nabokov.

On 19 June 1964, Martin Luther King had achieved victory: on that day, racial segregation had been officially abolished in the USA. Now, however, he found itself in a recently divided city. But the preacher of freedom knew that the division of the city was not founded on the will of the many, but had instead been decided by the unelected and powerful few, and that it interfered with people’s lives and tore families apart. Very different was the attitude of the US State Department in Berlin: at that time, the population in the eastern sector was regarded merely as an instrument of a despised system. The Americans even deprived the civil rights leader of his passport in order to prevent him from travelling to East Berlin. On September 13, at 11 AM in the morning, Martin Luther King delivered a sermon at the memorial service for John F. Kennedy, an event which was at the same time the opening concert of the Festwochen. Incidentally, this was also the Festwochen at which the JazzFest Berlin was inaugurated: appearing were four choirs, among them the choir of the “Black Nativity Play,” which performed gospel music and spirituals. After his concluding sermon, delivered to an audience of 20,000 at the Waldbühne, King wanted to cross Checkpoint Charlie and travel to East Berlin, where he had also been invited to deliver a sermon. But without a passport? But King had been acquainted with customs officials ever since his “I have a dream,” speech, delivered in Washington DC in front of a 250,000 people. After extended negotiations at the checkpoint, he was permitted to enter the socialist sector of Berlin after surrendering only his American Express card as security. After enjoying an overwhelming excess with a sermon (the same one, incidentally, he had given at the Waldbühne), delivered at the Marienkirche, a second appearance was hastily arranged for the Sophienkirche, which was also filled to capacity. Beforehand, King had paid a visit to the site of a firefight near the border crossing at Heinrich-Heine-Straße, where just hours before, an American sergeant had rescued a seriously wounded GDR fugitive from a hail of bullets. At the conclusion of his stay in East Berlin, King retrieved his credit card at Checkpoint Charlie shortly before midnight. In the end, the invitation of Martin Luther King to the Festwochen of 1964 resulted in historically significant events in both parts of Berlin.

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