x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Relive the dream in Washington DC

Washington remains historic, 50 years after Martin Luther King's iconic speech, writes David Whitley.

The Washington Monument on the National Mall, pictured behind the Ronald Reagan Building, is part of DC's capital appeal. Hemis.fr / Getty Images
The Washington Monument on the National Mall, pictured behind the Ronald Reagan Building, is part of DC's capital appeal. Hemis.fr / Getty Images

In Washington DC's stewing, sapping summer heat, the plateau in the Lincoln Memorial's steps comes as a welcome respite. It's a chance to turn round and survey the National Mall, the fatherly gaze of Abraham Lincoln's statue tickling your back.

Out ahead, the Washington Monument soars upwards, an obstacle for the planes on their way into Ronald Reagan airport. The Reflecting Pool and World War II Memorial fill the gap between. It's a scene of stately magnificence, but one that only becomes truly evocative when looking down at the words engraved into the marble.

There's no flashy shrine, or attention-grabbing display - just a subdued acknowledgement of one of the most electrifying speeches in history. It reads: "I Have A Dream. Martin Luther King Jr. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. August 28 1963."

It's 50 years since King stood here, surveying a crowd of more than 200,000 people packed around the base of the Memorial. The "I Have A Dream" part of the speech wasn't supposed to happen. He'd stayed up the previous night in his suite at the Willard Hotel, crafting the words that he planned to use, in microscopic detail. But he was so well-received that he decided to go on, his inner preacher letting loose with incendiary effect.

The other events of that day have faded into something of a blur, but at the National Portrait Gallery's One Life exhibition, the contents of a glass case show that King's address was a small part of a packed schedule. The original programme for the March on Washington, with its pledge affirming a commitment to non-violent protest, features a long list of speakers. King was widely acknowledged to be the most talented of them, so he went last. But the woman inked in to grab the microphone first deserves an equal place in the story of Washington's civil rights heritage.

Marian Anderson had taken to the Lincoln Memorial before. In 1939, she had been refused permission to sing in front of an integrated audience at Constitution Hall. At the time, Washington was a racially segregated city. Despite Anderson being recognised as one of the greatest operatic voices of her generation, the Daughters of the American Revolution - the group that built and owned Constitution Hall - weren't ready for those barriers to be torn down for a black performer.

So an alternative concert was arranged, with no small amount of help from the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt: 75,000 people, of all races, gathered around the Lincoln Memorial to hear Anderson sing. Millions more listened on the radio.

The National Portrait Gallery's photos of Anderson, gracefully wrapped in a fur coat, are just as powerful as those of King.

But the exhibition does an excellent job in painting a rounded picture of King. There are photographs of him as a small boy, socks rolled up, and as a pressure-worn older man with a furrowed brow at an anti-Vietnam War protest in New York. They act as a timeline through the boycotts, arrests, protests and stands of noble defiance that made him a central pillar of the civil rights movement.

Two photographs stand out with zinging significance. In one, he is speaking to the Montgomery Improvement Association in Alabama. Leaning forward attentively is the slight figure of Rosa Parks, the woman whose refusal to sit at the back of a bus sparked waves of anti-segregation civil-disobedience campaigns across the US.

In the second photo, King is in the crowd. He's on the second row as President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Bill at the White House on July 2, 1964. It represents the moment where at least part of that famous dream was realised - racial discrimination and segregation were outlawed.

There's no one-stop shop for tracing Washington DC's civil rights history - although the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture should largely address this when it opens in 2015. For now, it's merely a building site. Farther down the National Mall, however, the National Museum of American History has a superb Changing America exhibition, which tackles two key anniversaries in the civil rights struggle. The first is the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, in which Abraham Lincoln used temporary wartime powers to declare all slaves in the secessionist Confederate states free.

Civil rights and the American Civil War are inextricably linked. The war broke out over the issue of slavery (or, more specifically, whether new states admitted to the Union should be able to practise it). At the time, slavery was legal in 15 states - including four that remained in the Union after their southern counterparts seceded.

Some of the stats on display are shocking. In 1860, out of 4,441,830 African-Americans that lived in the country, 3,953,760 were enslaved. Half of all US exports were slave- produced.

On the wall is a poster from a slave sale at a St Louis hotel, which prosaically lists human beings as products, all defects remarked upon. It's not the only item that tells a vivid story - elsewhere drawings, paintings and preserved documents tell tales of escape, rescue, defiance and political connivance to get anti-slavery legislation in through whatever back door could be prised open.

Slavery was soon abolished after the Civil War, and equal voting rights were established in 1870, but the Southern states brought in segregation and voting restrictions based on literacy taxes, poll taxes and elaborate registration systems. In 1890, fewer than 9,000 out of 147,000 voting-age African-Americans in Mississippi were registered to vote.

Slavery had gone, but gaping inequalities remained. And the second half of the exhibition is about the efforts to get them struck out. It focuses on the March on Washington, which was a phenomenal ideological and logistical achievement. Various pressure groups had to be united, then transport organised for people arriving from across the country.

The detail about the (incredibly nervy) planning is fascinating, and the videos of the crowds and speeches hugely moving. But it's "Memory card", left by a visitor, that resonates long after leaving. Written by an attendee who was just a child at the time, it reads: "My dad took me and my sisters there. I was very afraid but my dad said he would protect us. Today I am so glad we went. Dr King's voice sounded like thunder to me at that time. I still remember the feeling."

In 1968, King was assassinated in Memphis. The killing sparked riots across the States, but Washington was particularly badly hit. The major flashpoint was the U Street area, just to the north of downtown.

If the National Mall is the ceremonial Washington of monuments, memorials and grand statements, U Street is the city's human heart. During the Civil War, it was woods and fields - many military camps were set up here - but afterwards, a mushrooming population saw it develop rapidly. Between 1900 and 1920, it became a predominantly African-American neighbourhood. But it was also the place where, albeit uneasily, all races mixed. U Street was known as the Black Broadway, dotted with clubs, restaurants and theatres that were fully integrated - no mean feat for a polarised city that has always been the dividing line between north and south.

It's worth following the signs of the City Within a City: Greater U Street Heritage Trail, which loops around the area's key venues in a rough figure of eight. There's Howard University, long the most prestigious seat of learning for African-American students. There's the Bohemian Caverns, a reincarnation of the jazz-era joint that Duke Ellington would regularly whip into a frenzy. There's the Whitelaw Hotel, where the likes of Joe Louis and Cab Calloway would stay at while in town. And, standing proud since 1958, is Ben's Chili Bowl - as much a Washington landmark as the Capitol or the White House. It serves half-smokes - glorified hotdogs, but don't let anyone hear you call them that - and a sign behind the counter states who eats for free. It's Bill Cosby and the Obama family. End of list.

U Street is not clutching on to past glories, though. The segment between 9th and 14th Street is arguably the most engaging part of DC. Ethiopian restaurants rub shoulders with tattooists, the African American Civil War Museum, tiny fashion boutiques and - post-refurb - the legendary Lincoln Theatre.

It might not be exactly what Martin Luther King Jr's dream looked like, but it's a fair shorthand approximation. The rest of the city - and, indeed, the country - may have a lot to work on, but U Street feels right.

The civil rights trail around Washington finishes back on the National Mall, at the Martin Luther King Jr memorial, only opened in 2011. Two giant granite slabs stand by the Potomac River's tidal basin. A third stands close to the water, as if cut from the gap. It's a nod to the "I Have A Dream" speech: out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope. That stone bears the 9.1-metre-high carving of King, arms crossed and gazing out towards the horizon, just as he did 50 years ago.

IF YOU GO

The flight Etihad (www.etihad.com) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Washington from Dh4,405 return including taxes. The flight time is 15 hours

The hotels Doubles at the Willard InterContinental (washington.intercontinental.com, 001 202 628 9100) cost from US$338.92 (Dh1,245) per night including taxes and excluding breakfast

The attractions The One Life exhibition, at the National Portrait Gallery (www.npg.si.edu), runs until June 1, 2014.The Changing America exhibition, at the National Museum of American History (americanhistory.si.edu), runs until September 7, 2014.Greater U Street Heritage Trail booklets (with maps) are available from the information centre next to Ben’s Chili Bowl (1213 U Street NW, www.benschilibowl.com). Audio tours and downloadable booklets are also available online via www.culturaltourismdc.org

For further information, visit www.washington.org

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