Black Lives Matter and the Berlin Wall
Americans have long viewed the Berlin Wall as a symbol of the oppression of communism and the superiority of the US democratic system. Yet there are other ways of understanding the links between the US and the Berlin Wall. Hope Harrison brings to light the Wall's connections to the US civil rights movement and the still ongoing struggle for racial justice and equality in the United States.
On this anniversary of the communist erection of the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961, it is time to broaden our perspective on this iconic edifice. For decades Americans have seen the Berlin Wall not only as a symbol of the oppression of communism and the intensity of the Cold War, but also as a symbol of the superiority of the US democratic system. Yet this is not the only way to see the connection between the US and the Berlin Wall.
Blacks who experienced the Berlin Wall—whether as tourists or standing guard at the Wall as a member of the US armed forces—felt the pain and irony of the US devotion to protecting the freedom of West Berliners from communism while discriminating against Blacks at home. Martin Luther King was one of them. Visiting Berlin in 1964, he gave sermons to packed crowds on both sides of the Wall. King told the Berliners, “we are the testing ground for the cohabitation of races, however different they may be, and you are testing the possibility for the coexistence of two ideologies that are competing for world domination.” He spoke of the city as a “symbol of the divisions of men on the face of the earth” and described the US “struggle to free some twenty million Negroes from the long night of segregation and discrimination.”
As one of the government’s most influential critics, officials had long kept a close watch on King. This continued even when he was in Berlin. The US embassy confiscated his passport, seemingly to prevent King from venturing across the Wall into East Berlin. Such a visit could play into the hands of the communists who had long highlighted racial problems in the US. King headed to the border to try anyway. He made it through Checkpoint Charlie when one of the East German border officers recognized him and accepted King’s American Express card as identification.
In East Berlin, among the 3,000 congregants attending King’s appearance at St. Mary’s Church was a young Markus Meckel. Two and a half decades later, Meckel would be one of the pastors following in King’s footsteps, using nonviolent means to call for systemic change. In 1989, Meckel and others sang songs from the civil rights movement as they gathered in churches and then took to the streets demanding their own civil rights, including freedom of speech and religion, free elections, and freedom to travel beyond the Wall. “We Shall Overcome” and “Let My People Go” had great meaning to people living behind the Berlin Wall.
The less-than-complete US approach to freedom had been made clear to many Berliners with President John F. Kennedy’s passive acceptance of the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Murmurings of “the Americans will never let this stand” quickly changed to resignation or outrage. Berliners felt betrayed.
West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt penned an angry letter to Kennedy three days after the East Germans sealed off the border. He criticized the “belated and not very strong Western response,” which at that point had consisted solely of a note of protest. Angry crowds outside of West Berlin’s city hall carried placards saying, “You can’t stop tanks with paper.” Kennedy sent Vice President Johnson and 1,500 more troops to West Berlin a few days later to demonstrate the US commitment to freedom in West Berlin. But those walled in in the East felt forgotten. Even decades later, some of them still remember their shock and disappointment with the US.
In 2020, Berliners continue to look to the Berlin Wall to reflect on US policies. On May 30, a day after the video of George Floyd’s murder went viral, his image appeared on the Berlin Wall in Berlin’s Mauerpark (Wall Park). The Afro-Caribbean artist Eme Freethinker painted George Floyd’s portrait with the caption, “I can’t breathe.” Thousands of Germans soon thereafter participated in anti-racism demonstrations in Berlin.
While many Americans proudly remember Reagan’s call on Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” it is Robert Kennedy’s pronouncements in West Berlin that should haunt us now. Visiting the city in 1962, as Paul Farber reminds us in his new book, A Wall of Our Own: An American History of the Berlin Wall, Kennedy gave an address in which he asserted, “We had a wall of our own—a wall of segregation erected against Negroes.” He continued confidently: “That wall is coming down.”
Robert Kennedy’s remarks provide a different way of reflecting on his brother’s oft-quoted words from his own July 1963 speech in West Berlin. Finally visiting the city nearly two years after the building of the Wall, President Kennedy proclaimed, “Freedom is indivisible; and when one man is enslaved, all are not free.” In the most famous line from that speech, he declared: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” The president meant that he stood with the Berliners on the central battleground for freedom, in the heart of Europe, in the heart of the Cold War. For Martin Luther King, George Floyd, and so many others, however, the central battleground for freedom in their lives was and is in the US.
About the Author
Hope M. Harrison
Professor of History and International Affairs, The George Washington University
Dr. Hope M. Harrison is Professor of History & International Affairs, George Washington University, and Co-Chair of the History and Public Policy Program Advisory Board. She is the author of After the Berlin Wall: Memory and the Making of the New Germany, 1989 to the Present (2019) and Driving the Soviets up the Wall: Soviet-East German Relations, 1953-1961 (2003).Read More
History and Public Policy Program
The History and Public Policy Program strives to make public the primary source record of 20th and 21st century international history from repositories around the world, to facilitate scholarship based on those records, and to use these materials to provide context for classroom, public, and policy debates on global affairs. Read more
Cold War International History Project
The Cold War International History Project supports the full and prompt release of historical materials by governments on all sides of the Cold War. Through an award winning Digital Archive, the Project allows scholars, journalists, students, and the interested public to reassess the Cold War and its many contemporary legacies. It is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program. Read more