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The 'I have a dream' speech transcends America

EMPOWERING: Martin Luther King Jr

I HAD a dream that one day I would stand at the very spot where Martin Luther King stood when he delivered that most memorable of speeches on August 28, 1963, to a quarter of a million people who had joined the March on Washington for jobs and freedom.

On August 26, I stood on that spot. In the shadow of Abraham Lincoln's huge memorial at what is known as the National Mall in Washington DC, the American capital.

I don't know what I expected to happen. Whether I could, through meditation and osmosis, absorb the magic of Martin Luther King. It didn't happen. I was just another tourist getting a photo taken at the spot where dozens of other tourists from all over the world waiting for a moment to stand on that spot for their holiday snaps.

Fifty years ago there was no 'x' that marked the spot where the civil rights leader stood. America was, of course, a different country. A segregated country where a form of apartheid called 'Jim Crow' oppressed the black population and they certainly didn't realise the tourism potential of marking the spot. Martin Luther King had not been canonised 50 years ago.

It's a different story today. The Washington DC that I am writing to you from very much realises the global story of this 50th anniversary of the 'I Have A Dream' speech. Journalists like me have descended on the city from the four corners of the world to be there. News organisations like the BBC cannot afford not to be there, because with his 'I Have A Dream' speech, Martin Luther King left us with a legacy that continues to resonate beyond the red hills of Georgia and the Appalacian mountains.

It has travelled across the oceans and lasted through the passage of time. So many disparate groups across the globe empathise with it and link it to their particular dream - from illegal immigrants, women's rights groups and gay rights.

'I have a dream' is all things to all men and women. That either underlines the great genius of Martin Luther King or it shows the deficiencies of the speech. It's not definitive enough so it's been appropriated and misappropriated by the people who 50 years ago sneered at it. There's even a President, just a stone's throw away from the spot that MLK delivered his speech, who is kept up at night by the dream.

But it is not the President's 'dream' that makes a difference, but the reality on the manicured and humid summer streets of downtown Washington. Here in the nation's capital little black children and little white children do play together. They don't necessarily go to the same schools, and as the gentrification of the city continues apace, they don't necessarily live in the same neighbourhoods.

And as a recent survey by the US television network shows only about 19 per cent of the African American population believes that America has achieved Dr King's dream whereas nearly 50 per cent of white America believes the country has.

I'm here in Washington to find out whether those stats are an affirmation or a distraction from the dream. You can make your own mind up.

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