Jan. 17 marks the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. — the slain Baptist minister from Atlanta who moved a nation on the cause of civil rights.
And while his dynamic career is celebrated for its many milestones, one moment is not remembered as well as others but is still significant: how on Sept. 13, 1964, King slipped into East Berlin without a passport and delivered two sermons that stunned critics in the United States and angered the communist elites who ruled East Germany.
King visited West Berlin at the invitation of then-Mayor (and future West German Chancellor) Willy Brandt. The two opened the 14th Annual Cultural Festival.
Before a rapt audience of 20,000 at the Weldburne Amphitheater, the American minister paid tribute to the late President John F. Kennedy, who had captured the hearts of Berliners when he spoke there a year before.
Clearly flushed with the success of his visit, King, at 7 p.m. on Sept. 13, honored a little-known invitation he had received to preach at Marienkirche (St. Mary's Lutheran Church), in East Berlin, behind the then-three-year-old Berlin Wall that East Germany's communist regime erected to keep its people from fleeing.
The thought of King preaching in any Iron Curtain country would clearly have been an "I told you so" moment for many Americans on the right.
"I never believed King was a communist — he opposed Marxism because it was based on materialism," recalled Allan Ryskind, formerly an editor and co-owner of the national conservative weekly Human Events. "But his economic views bordered on socialism. He favored a guaranteed annual income and certainly talked up the class warfare game."
King biographer David Garrow says two of King's top aides, Stanley Levison and Hunter Pitts O'Dell, were former Communist Party members and that Attorney General Robert Kennedy authorized the FBI to wiretap both men. He finally authorized tapping King because he was so concerned about Levison's influence on the clergyman.
The U.S. Embassy confiscated King's passport, did not give him a visa to go to East Germany, and detained his interpreter.
However, aware of criticism of King in his own country and obviously anticipating a sermon against racism in the United States, the East German regime of communist strongman Walter Ulbricht made it easy for King to cross over to East Berlin at the infamous Checkpoint Charlie.
"Dr. King managed to get past the checkpoint by using an American Express card for identification," Dr. Ruth Wodak, distinguished professor of discourse studies at Lancaster University in the U.K. told Newsmax.
"Can you imagine what a commercial that would have made!" she joked.
To an overflow crowd of 2,000 at St. Mary's, King brought greetings from "Christian brothers and sisters in the U.S. and West Berlin."
With his audience listening raptly, the visiting preacher spoke of "the same common humanity that binds people, regardless of race, creed, ideology, or nationality."
He took an undisguised whack at the Berlin Wall, declaring that "on either side of that wall are God's children and no man-made barrier can obliterate that fact."
King spoke of Berliners being a common people regardless of their divided city.
"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 on this pilgrim journey."
As if foreseeing when the wall would come down and the two Germanys would be reunited 26 years later, King concluded; "There is no East, no West, no North, no South, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide world."
Spiced with references to "freedom" and "civil disobedience," King's sermon was heartening to the East German clergy who the government constantly opposed. Especially heartened was the pastor of St. Mary's, Werner Arnold, who had been imprisoned for helping smuggle East Germans into the West.
Word spread fast about King's words and he was persuaded to speak later that evening at another church, Sophienkirche (St. Sophia's) to another overflow crowd. He was back in West Berlin for a late dinner that same night.
"The communist regime thought indeed that in welcoming Martin Luther King, they would have a crown witness against the 'racist, capitalist empire of evil' named the USA," said veteran broadcaster Ralph Sina, now bureau chief of German Radio in Brussels. "But Dr. King gave them a surprise with his sermon."
"I know that I don't look like the Americans who've previously spoken in this great city," said presidential candidate Barack Obama when he spoke in Berlin down the street from the Brandenburg Gate on July 24, 2008. It's unfortunate the man who would become America's first black president invoked Presidents Kennedy and Reagan and their memorable words in Berlin, but not the Black minister he often speaks of admiringly.
In speaking to Berliners on both sides of the Wall, King moved people and touched hearts 58 years ago.
(Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in Newsmax on Sept. 11, 2014.)
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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