HEIDELBERG, Germany — For nearly three decades, this German city has been the unlikely spot for what’s thought to be the only annual international celebration of the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr.
Every year, to mark the assassinated American civil rights leader’s birthday, hundreds of people have gathered in late January in the Providence Church on the Hauptstrasse to hear speeches by preachers and professors, listen to gospel choirs and afterward eat appetizers at a reception. Every year, the event has been attended by city luminaries, African students, German ministers and U.S. Army sergeants. A few years ago, the sergeant major of U.S. Army Garrison Heidelberg performed an interpretive dance as part of the program, and a choir from the garrison always sang.
Often, the program showed surprising links between post-war German theologians and the American civil rights movement. And its speakers, focused not only on the popular “I Have a Dream” speech era of King, but also how his difficult, dangerous work ushered in a new, post-Jim Crow era in the South, expanded freedoms for all Americans, criticized capitalism for abandoning the poor and demanded withdrawal from Vietnam.
In 2007, German theologian Henrich Grosse, who has translated much of King’s work and spent time doing civil rights work in segregated Mississippi, discussed the later years of King’s life before he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968. By then King had become one of the country’s most prominent opponents of American militarism.
The next year, the keynote speaker was a former King intimate, the Rev. Harcourt Klinefelter, a Mennonite minister who was with King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the mid-1960s. Klinefelter, whose job was to edit King’s sermons and speeches for radio, talked about King’s global impact and personally about King as a man. “He treated the garbage collector in the same way he treated the mayor,” Klinefelter said at the time.
In 2009, after the election of Barack Obama as the first African-American U.S. president, the event was especially celebratory. But by then, the co-sponsor of the event, the Rhein-Neckar branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was the only remaining functioning chapter of the NAACP in Europe, down from 21 in the 1980s.
The next year, membership in the group was down to 50 or so.
This year’s commemoration — the 27th — may be the last of its kind. U.S. Army Europe, along with its soldiers will be gone from Heidelberg this summer. Without them, the Rhein-Neckar branch may cease to exist.
“We’ve been told by National that you can only have a branch where there’s U.S. military,” said Malcolm Carpenter, a branch spokesman and Defense Department retiree.
Dr. Meryl Ann “Billee” Manigault, branch first vice president, said she is seeking answers from the national NAACP organization as to whether there were some way around the policy. “We want to continue the NAACP here,” she said.
In the meantime, the group has tried to start branches at remaining Army bases in such cities as Stuttgart and Wiesbaden. “I’ve written a couple of letters to Wiesbaden, but as of now, no one has really answered,” she said. “Right now we’re kind of in limbo.”
“I don’t think this is going to be our last MLK Jr. commemoration,’’ Manigault said. “But I think we’ll be doing it a different way.”
This year’s Martin Luther King Jr. event is planned to be similar to previous ones, kicked off, in German fashion, with a discussion. A panel discussion on King’s legacy begins at 7 p.m. Friday at DAI, the German-American Institute, Sofienstrasse 12, which is a co-sponsor of the event.
The main part of the program begins at 6 p.m. Saturday at Providence Church, Hauptstrasse 90a.
This year’s speakers include Professor Dr. Michael Haspel, director of the Evangelical Academy of Thuringia and Harriet Hunter-Boykin, assistant superintendent of Defense Department schools in the North Carolina district.
Hunter-Boykin, who holds a doctorate in education, was formerly a school administrator in Heidelberg. She said she planned to discuss how King is remembered, his prophetic role, his leadership style and “our desire and duty to continue the dream.”
Event organizers had previously enlisted gospel choirs from either Mark Twain Village or Patrick Henry Village, the Heidelberg Army’s two churches. This year, as the garrison empties, those choirs are gone.
“We went to Stuttgart,” Carpenter said. “They said they’d be glad to come.”