Guest column by Citrus Heights resident Michael Bullington–
In 1934, the country was still emerging from the Great Depression, but Citrus Heights was growing.
At the corner of Auburn and Sylvan, the city’s first library had recently been built (later reconstructed). The city’s first fire department was established a year later.
Across the Atlantic, the mood was quite different, as Hitler had assumed the Chancellorship of Germany only a year before. The ominous clouds of war were gathering over Berlin, the country and beyond.
Michael King Sr., the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church of Atlanta, was visiting the German capital in 1934, after a tour of the Holy Land in the company of a delegation of Baptist pastors from the United States. During the visit, he became deeply moved by the legacy of the Great German Reformer Martin Luther, who had taken a stand against the abuses of Rome with only a voice and a pen, and thereby changed the world forever.
Upon his return to the United States, he changed his name to Martin Luther King, Sr., and his 5-year-old son’s name to Martin Luther King, Jr., thus setting the course for the peaceful transformation of a whole society and indeed the whole world.
Thirty years later, the son, now Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., accepted the invitation of another German chancellor to address the nation during a time of special deference to slain president John F. Kennedy, who the previous year had visited the city and announced his solidarity with all the citizens of Berlin by declaring, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” translated, “I too am a Berliner.”
Early in the day, King visited Berlin City Hall and performed a scheduled speaking engagement before 20-30,000 people at the Waldbuhn, an outdoor amphitheater, on the occasion of the “Day of the Church.” Afterwards, he heard about the wounding of a 21-year-old East Berliner, who had been shot while trying to escape the East side of the wall. He visited the scene and then resolved to cross into the East to show his solidarity with the beleaguered faithful in the East.
The American consulate’s response? They confiscated his passport. Undeterred, at 7 p.m. MLK was driven by an unidentified German woman through Checkpoint Charlie with an American Express card as his only means of identification (what a great commercial that could have made!).
The East Germans were only too willing to host the civil rights leader, who had been critical of U.S. policy. They were soon to get much more than they bargained for.
His first stop was 8 p.m. at “Marienkirsche,” Mary’s Church, ground zero for the opposition in East Berlin. On a moment’s notice the church was packed beyond its capacity. As word spread, the overflow moved to a second church, where he spoke to an even larger audience.
His voice still resonates: “My dear Christian friends of East Berlin… this city… stands as a symbol of the divisions of man on the face of the earth. For here on either side of this wall are God’s children, and no man-made barrier can obliterate that fact.”
He then called attention to the plight of black Americans, “As you know, there is a great social revolution taking place in the United States of America, and it is the struggle to free some twenty million Negroes from the long night of segregation and discrimination.” The listeners were so moved by his sermon’s emphasis on the similarities of the struggles of black Americans to their own that some wept openly.
Twenty-five years later, 1989, the march to tear down the wall originated at the same Mary’s Church, and freedom at last came to the captive of East Berlin.
In conclusion, let us always remember how Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream changed not only the lives of a certain people, but those of the entire world. Let us honor his memory by following his model in our relations with all people.
Michael Bullington is a 34-year resident of Citrus Heights and a 39-year student of history. The Sentinel welcomes guest opinion columns on local topics from Citrus Heights residents. To submit an article for publication, click here.