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The Civil Rights Struggle, African-American GIs, and Germany to Open at the Palmer Gallery
Corporal William E. Thomas and Private First Class Joseph Jackson on Easter Morning. Date: March 10, 1945. Photo: NARA, College Park, MD.

POUGHKEEPSIE, NY.- The Civil Rights Struggle, African-American GIs, and Germany, a ground-breaking multimedia exhibition, acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic, that chronicles the little-known history and experience of African American GIs in Germany will be on view at the James W. Palmer III Gallery at Vassar from Thursday, October 1, through Thursday, October 29.

By illustrating the untold story of African American GIs and the transnational implications of the African American civil rights movement, the curators of this exhibition—Maria Höhn, associate professor of history at Vassar, and fellow historian Martin Klimke from the Heidelberg Center of American Studies (HCA) at Heidelberg University and the German Historical Institute (GHI) in Washington, DC—hope to advance a more nuanced and sophisticated sense of how America's struggle for democracy reverberated across the globe.

In addition to the 50 historical photographs, the exhibition will feature memorabilia of Dr. King’s 1964 visit to East and West Berlin from the collection of Marienkirche (St. Mary’s Church) in the former East Berlin, including the guest book with his inscription and recordings of his sermons and speeches in Berlin.

The exhibition is organized around six historical themes: "From WWI to WWII"; "Occupation and Fraternization"; "Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Germany"; "Black Power Solidarity"; "Angela Davis in East and West Germany"; and "The GI Movement." The combined works illuminate how Germany emerged as a critical point of reference in African American demands for an end to segregation and for equal rights.

The multimedia research project, of which this exhibition is a part, is a joint research initiative of the German Historical Institute, Vassar College, and the Heidelberg Center for American Studies at the University of Heidelberg. Professor Höhn and Dr. Klimke are the directors of the project and have been honored for their work by the NAACP with the 2009 Julius E. Williams Distinguished Community Service Award. In addition to the exhibition, they are convening an international scholarly conference to be held at Vassar, October 1–4, whose speakers will include Angela Davis, African American WWII veteran Leon Bass, as well as many scholars from the United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, and Germany.

The public is invited to the panel discussion held in conjunction with the conference, “Tracing an Untold History: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Visit to Cold War Berlin in 1964,” on Thursday, October 1, at 5:30pm in the Villard Room. Panelists will include Rolande Stolte, Theological Consultant for Church and Public Education of Marienkirche in Berlin; Professor Alcyone Scott, of Midland Lutheran College, Nebraska, who was one of Dr. King’s translators during the 1964 visit; and Laura Stapane from the German Historical Institute. The discussion will be moderated by exhibition curators Höhn and Klimke.

From as early as 1933, African American civil rights activists used white America's condemnation of Nazi racism to expose and indict the abuses of Jim Crow racism at home and to argue that "separate" can never be "equal,” according to Professor Höhn. This exhibition shows how Germany emerged as a critical point of reference in African American demands for an end to segregation and for equal rights.

Through America's entry into World War II, the civil rights activists in America were able to trumpet their call for an end to segregation. Through the defeat of Nazi Germany and the example and participation of African American GIs in the military occupation, their determination was strengthened and they claimed that it was in post-Nazi Germany that black GIs found the equality and democracy denied them in their own country. The examples chosen by Höhn and Klimke for the exhibition highlight this time.

Once the civil rights movement gained momentum in the late 1950s, black GIs deployed overseas became crucial actors in the struggle. By 1960, sit-ins to integrate lunch counters were taking place not only in Greensboro, NC, but also in establishments on and around U.S. military bases in Germany. Because military deployments to Germany usually lasted 2 to 3 years, African-American GIs were able to establish contacts and often friendships within neighboring German communities.

Beginning in the early 1960s, collaboration started between black GIs and German student activists in places like Frankfurt and Berlin to support demands for civil rights in the United States. After Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s visit to Berlin in 1964, the rise of the Black Power movement, and Angela Davis's solidarity campaigns in both East and West Germany in the early 1970s, African American GIs only intensified their collaboration with German student activists to fight racism both in the U.S. military and in German communities.

The exhibition, which has received wide praise on both sides of the Atlantic, was first on view at the German Historical Institute (GHI) in Washington, D.C., and will travel to other locations in the United States, following the show at the Palmer Gallery. A concurrent exhibition is on view in Germany, with the first showing at the Ramstein Air Base Documentary & Exhibition Center last summer. The exhibition will continues to travel to other German locations through 2010, including Frankfurt, Berlin, Munich, Heidelberg, Mainz, and Augsburg.

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