HEIDELBERG, Germany — Each of the past 22 years, what could be the world’s most international branch of the NAACP has brought together U.S. servicemembers and expats, Germans, Africans and others to honor the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr.

This year will be similar, except for one thing: The 23rd annual program, held Jan. 17, will come days before Barack Obama becomes the 44th president of the United States and the first African-American president in history.

The fact that he is "a black man who does not deny his heritage, who’s compassionate, and who’s tough" — as Rudy Howze, longtime president of the Rhein-Neckar branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, puts it — has been regarded as a sign of social evolution and a cause for celebration.

"Forty years ago, we couldn’t even vote in the South," said Howze, 77, who enlisted in a still segregated U.S. Army to get as far as he could from Birmingham, Ala.

Or as Condoleezza Rice, outgoing secretary of state and a Republican, told reporters in November, "Electing a black president says around the world that you can overcome old wounds. I’ve said in our case, we have a birth defect, but it can be overcome."

"History and Hope" is the theme of the event, at 5 p.m. on Jan. 17 at the Providence Church, at 90A Hauptstrasse in Heidelberg. Free of charge, it is hosted by the Rhein-Neckar NAACP and the German-American Institute. The evening will include German and American speakers — both professors — as well as community leaders like the Heidelberg mayor and the U.S. Army Garrison Heidelberg commander.

The event will mark what would have been King’s 80th birthday. The black minister who led nonviolent protests in the 1960s against brutality, segregation and poverty in the South and won the Nobel Peace Prize was assassinated in Memphis in 1968.

The event will also mark the 100th year of the founding of the NAACP, which in its early years focused on using the courts to overturn the Jim Crow laws, and before World War I helped African-Americans win the right to serve as military officers. The organization also fought the lynching of blacks throughout the United States.

And it was Thurgood Marshall, an NAACP lawyer, who successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. the Board of Education that separate schools were not equal schools.

The keynote speaker at Saturday’s event will be Hubert J. Locke, a Disciples of Christ Church minister and professor at the University of Washington. Locke is the author of "Remembrance and Recollection; Religion, Power, and the Politics of Resistance" and "Learning From History; Searching for God in God-forsaken Times and Places."

The German speaker will be Manfred Berg, chairman of the American History Department at the University of Heidelberg and a scholar in the field of human rights. He is the author of "The Black Vote, Ticket to Freedom."

Despite the hope that Obama’s election has engendered, Howze noted a less hopeful reality. The Rhein-Neckar branch is the only remaining functioning chapter of the NAACP in Europe, down from 21 in the 1980s.

"Transfers, rotations, downsizing" of the U.S. Army is one reason why, he said. "The level of commitment is pretty low."

"It’s important not to sit back in the sun and glory of our accomplishment," Howze said. "Obama at the NAACP conference — he said, ‘I can’t do it alone.’ "

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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