Martin Luther King Jr. and Germany in the 1960s

Nov 19, 2008

Panel discussion at the GHI | Panelists: Martin Klimke (GHI), Maria Höhn (Vassar College), Leroy Hopkins (Millersville State University

The Photography Exhibition on African American Civil Rights and Germany opened on November 19, 2008, with a panel discussion on "Martin Luther King Jr. and Germany in the 1960s" at the German Historical Institute (GHI) in Washington, DC. Participants were Professor Maria Höhn (Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY), Professor Leroy Hopkins (Millersville State University, PA). and Dr. Martin Klimke (GHI Washington/ Heidelberg Center for American Studies, University of Heidelberg). The GHI and Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY, sponsored both events in cooperation with the Humanities Council of Washington, DC, to celebrate the global impact of Martin Luther King Jr. and to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of his death.

The exhibition of photographs will be open to the public until the end of February. Curated by Maria Höhn and Martin Klimke, it presents the first results of a joint research initiative of the German Historical Institute, Vassar College, and the Heidelberg Center for American Studies at the University of Heidelberg. The goal of this cooperative, transatlantic effort is to host a series of events and conferences and produce a comprehensive and interactive digital archive on "African American Civil Rights and Germany" that includes documents, images, and oral histories of, among others, African American GIs or civilian employees stationed in Germany during the time of the Cold War.

The more than forty black and white photographs, cartoons and political pamphlets in this exhibition tell an intriguing story of how American and German history became intertwined in the struggle for civil rights. By tracing the encounter between African Americans and Germany from the mid-1930s until the late 1970s, the exhibition illustrates vividly how America's struggle for democracy was framed in reference to Germany but also played out in Cold War West (and East) Germany. Political cartoons from the 1930s show how civil rights activists and the black press used the emerging racial state in Nazi Germany to remind white Americans of Jim Crow in the U.S. Photos from defeated and occupied Germany depict how crucial African American soldiers were in attaining victory, but also why those soldiers experienced in Germany an equality and experience of democracy that was denied them in their own country.

The 1960s are presented with a special selection of photos regarding Martin Luther King Jr.'s visit to Berlin (both West and East) in September 1964. For the tens of thousands of Germans who cheered for King, he represented a voice that spoke to peoples' aspirations for human rights worldwide. Also exhibited are photos that depict the collaboration on civil rights between African American GIs and students from Germany's vibrant student movement. The turn to more radical demands is shown with photos, underground newspapers and political flyers produced by the unusual alliance of Black Panther GIs and their German supporters. A final section illustrates the appeal of Angela Davis in both German states. Because of her time studying at Frankfurt University (1965-66), and her connections to the German student movement, Angela Davis's arrest and prosecution in 1971 sparked a widespread solidarity campaign in both German states.

The panel "Martin Luther King Jr. and Germany in the 1960s" was introduced by Professor Dr. Berghoff, the director of the German Historical Institute, who welcomed the more than 100 guests by emphasizing the importance of transatlantic collaborations such as this one in broadening the history of the civil rights movement. Joy Ford Austin, the executive director of the Humanities Council, extended warm greetings to the audience, and thanked the GHI and Vassar College for making this event possible. In a captivating introduction to the panel discussion, Dr. Martin Klimke recalled the 1964 visit of Martin Luther King Jr. to Berlin and explored why this important event was largely forgotten both in the U.S. and Germany. Maria Höhn gave a short overview of how the contradiction between the U.S. mission of democracy in Germany after 1945 and America's Jim Crow reality invigorated the civil rights movement, and how GIs also brought civil rights demands to Germany. Martin Klimke then elaborated on the close connection between the protest movements of the 1960s, and how German students adopted and adapted the tactics of the African American civil rights and black power movement during the 1960s. Leroy Hopkins, who spent time in Germany during the 1960s as a student, recalled his "coming of age" as a black man abroad and detailed how Germany has figured prominently in many of the crucial decisions of his career and life.

The exhibition of photographs and the panel were received enthusiastically by a diverse audience of academics, activists, and students engaged in a vivid and stimulating debate on the legacy of Martin Luther King, the long struggle for civil rights, and the transnational implications of American history. The event was a successful continuation of the cooperation between the GHI Washington, the Heidelberg Center for American Studies, and Vassar College, as well as the larger DC community.

It will be followed by a lecture by the prominent civil rights historian Harvard Sitkoff on "Civil Rights and America's Role In World War II" at the institute on January 13, 2009, as well as two conferences on "Black Diaspora and Germany Across the Centuries" (GHI, March 19-21, 2009) and "African American Civil Rights and Germany in the 20th Century" (Vassar College, October 1-3, 2009).

Martin Klimke