Jane Dailey: Why didn't Obama mention MLK's visit to Berlin when he was in Berlin?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jane Dailey teaches American history at the University of Chicago.]

Looking out at the crowd of 200,000 that stood between him and the Brandenburg Gate last week, Barack Obama remarked on the difference between himself and other American leaders who had spoken in Berlin. Inviting his listeners to look beyond that difference, Obama emphasized, "I know that I don't look like the Americans who've previously spoken in this great city."

This was not, strictly speaking, true. In September 1964 an American who "looked like" Obama addressed a capacity crowd at the Waldbuhne, an open-air concert space in Berlin. At the invitation of West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at a commemoration ceremony for President John F. Kennedy, who was and remains a hero in Berlin for his denunciation of communism and the Berlin Wall. It was JFK, not MLK, who Obama's spinmeisters were aiming to associate with the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate last week. It was Kennedy's 1963 rally at the Brandenburg Gate that Obama tried to recreate.

There are many photographs of Kennedy's 1963 speech at the Brandenburg Gate and of Kennedy gazing over the wall into East Berlin. King did more than look: He went. Invited by an East German church official, King was determined to speak directly to East Berliners. The U.S. State Department was equally determined that he would not. The American embassy confiscated King's passport and recalled his German guide and translator. Undeterred, King went to the wall. King had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; surely someone would recognize him at Checkpoint Charlie? But his face was not enough for the East Germans. Informed that he had to prove his identity, King flashed his American Express Card.

Three hours later, King preached a sermon of non-violence and universal brotherhood to an overflow crowd in East Berlin's Marienkirche, praising the American students who had demonstrated in the American civil rights movement that they "would rather go to jail than live with degradation but without equality" and promising the East Germans that "we will [all] be free one day."

Obama's omission has gone largely unremarked. Ironically, it is unlikely that the association with King is one the Obama campaign is eager to invoke. It is noteworthy that in Obama's speech—a speech that invoked the speeches of several Americans in Berlin in addition to JFK—there was no echo of King in Berlin. Was it an oversight? Perhaps, but it was, nonetheless, an oversight that reveals certain racial truths about the politics of our time.

White politicians need leave no stone unturned in their efforts to associate themselves with King's legacy in particular and the civil rights movement in general (Just last week, presumptive GOP presidential candidate John McCain, who as a U.S. representative voted against making King's birthday a federal holiday in 1983, praised King in a speech before the NAACP).

Rather than claim King's legacy, the first African-American presidential nominee has to keep a steady distance from the tradition of activism and the struggle for equality that he embodies....
Read entire article at Chicago Tribune

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More Comments:

James W Loewen - 8/18/2008

I had forgotten MLK's visit. Damn interesting post. Thanks, Prof. Dailey, and thanks to S. A. Carter for the conclusion.

Saalim Abdul Carter - 8/1/2008

I think HNN does Prof. Dailey a disservice by truncating her conclusion.

"Why? Because he needs the votes of white Americans who still often view civil rights as corrosive of their own interests and privileges. This is the special burden that minority politicians in general, but particularly African-American politicians, bear: Unlike whites, black civil servants have to prove that they represent the entire nation and not simply the group that looks like them. Although the nation has surely come a long way since 1964—Martin Luther King would have had trouble voting for president in many parts of the South then, much less run as a candidate—Obama's double bind with respect to King shows how far civil rights in America still has to go. The day when a black candidate can trumpet his kinship with Martin Luther King as loudly as a white candidate can has yet to arrive."

Without this conclusion, Prof. Dailey's article smacks of someone just picking at Obama.