"Never give up building bridges!":

From becoming Martin Luther King's Nobel Peace Prize mail translator to thinking about his legacy

One of the greatest honors in my life occurred in May 1965 when I met Martin Luther King, Jr, who invited me to become his Nobel Peace Prize Mail translator.  The parents of one of my American exchange sisters, Ruth Ewy White (the 1961-62 Bethel College exchange student at Wuppertal, my hometown), had invited me (the 1964-65 Wuppertal exchange student at Bethel College) to join them in visiting their daughter who was working as a civil rights worker at the Ebenezer Church and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Ruth promised that she would introduce us to Dr. King.  

The Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta was crowded with church goers.  I am ashamed to say that white Americans stayed away in droves. Ruth, her parents, and I were four of maybe six or so non-Africans that Sunday morning to hear the most famous living American (as Kennedy had already been assassinated).  Many Americans at that time looked at King with suspicion. After all, he was preaching equality of all human beings and that meant the likely loss of cheap labor in the South and negroes (as African-Americans were called in those days) who would become “uppity and cause trouble.”

I am a happy agnostic, but I must admit his sermon spoke to me on several levels.  I will never forget his encouragement to everyone in the congregation: “Never give up building bridges,” he said, and people nodded and cheered him on.  After the service, Ruth introduced us to the “Mahatma Gandhi of the United States.”  He welcomed us, shook our hands, and I asked him to sign two books that he had written.  He smiled, nodded, and signed.  And then I asked him whether he could show me his Nobel Peace Prize. “Sure,” he said, and then he looked me straight in the eye, doubt wrinkling his forehead.  “Frankly,” King said, “I don’t know where I have that thing!”   

The world’s greatest honor—“that thing.”  I realized that he was an extraordinarily busy man, but this sophomore from Germany really wanted to see the Nobel Peace Prize.  I literally begged him: “Please, I REALLY would like to see it!”  “All right,” said one of America’s busiest men. “Let me try to find it.  Come and see me tomorrow.”  I could not sleep that night.  After all, how often does a young college student get invited to see a Nobel prize in person.  The next day, with great anticipation, I walked into his office at the SCLC which he headed.  What struck me was the contrast between the area itself which looked economically deprived, even neglected by society, and the gold medal—the world’s most famous honor—in the midst of this poverty.  It seemed to me that the people of Scandinavia valued King’s work more than many Americans, and that saddened me.  

I was in awe holding King’s Nobel Peace Prize in my hand, a gold medal with an image of Alfred Nobel on one side and the inscription “Pro pace et fraternitate gentium” (“For the peace and brotherhood of men”) on the other side.  Dr. King even had brought along a blue box for me.  When I opened it, I unscrolled a parchment-like document which identified him as the winner of the Nobel Prize for 1964.  It was signed by the King of Norway.  I felt so honored that I asked right away whether I could do something for Dr. King. “I don’t know,” he said.  And for the first time in my life I heard myself say that I was bilingual: able to speak and write German and English fluently.  “Oh, German,” he said, “there are all those letters.”  

Within minutes I found myself sitting at King’s typewriter and translating letters from all over Germany, both East and West, and the whole of Eastern Europe where German was still the lingua franca.  Every single one of the writers was thrilled about his award.  I clipped my translations together with the originals and placed the most important one on top of the pile: an invitation from the Thomaner Kirche (Thomas Church) of Johann Sebastian Bach in Leipzig, (then) East Germany, an invitation that the Nobel Peace Laureate could not accept as he had been maligned as a Communist in the US and did not dare to visit the Thomaner Kirche in Leipzig.  Years later I found out that he had briefly visited East Berlin, but the pressure back in the US was too great to travel further and meet fellow ministers, theologians, and the oppressed people of Communist East Germany. 

Henrik Eger, Ph.D., Philadelphia, 2008