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Gary Younge
I have a dream

Forty years on, Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" is still a great speech. Still pertinent, even though many of its immediate demands have been met. Still relevant, beyond America's borders and the racial context that it addressed. So universal in its humanism that it spoke to Catholics in Northern Ireland during the 60s, black South Africans in the townships during the 70s and 80s and speaks to the Roma in eastern Europe today.

Yet, if President John F Kennedy had had his way, it would never have been delivered. And if King had been left to his own devices it would probably never have been remembered.

It was June 22 1963, when Kennedy met with the nation's civil rights leaders. Just one month before, segregationists in Birmingham, Alabama had turned hoses and dogs on black teenagers. Only a few days later the president went to Germany where he slammed Soviet repression at the Berlin Wall, calling for freedom abroad that he could not secure for black people at home. The state of America's racial politics had reached the stage of domestic crisis and international embarrassment. Plans for a march on Washington for jobs and freedom on August 28 organised by the black union leader A Philip Randolph, were already under way. Kennedy was preparing a civil-rights bill that would antagonise white southerners in his own party who were opposed to integration. "I may lose the next election because of this," he told them. "I don't care."

The truth is that he cared very deeply. He asked them to call the march off. "We want success in Congress," said Kennedy. "Not just a big show at the Capitol." Randolph refused. "The negroes are already in the streets," he told Kennedy.

King, who deferred in age and experience to Randolph did not speak until the end of the meeting. "It may seem ill-timed," he said. "Frankly, I have never engaged in a direct-action movement that did not seem ill-timed." The march went ahead. By the time Kennedy came back from Europe he had decided that he would try to co-opt what he could not cancel. He declared his support for the march, hailing it as a "peaceful assembly for the redress of grievances".

"Peaceful" was the operative word. The prospect of large numbers of black protesters descending on Washington DC terrified the white political elite, even though the city itself was overwhelmingly black. Life magazine described the capital as suffering "its worse case of invasion jitters since the first battle of Bull Run". The Pentagon put 19,000 troops on standby in the suburbs; hospitals postponed elective surgery.

From the quarter of a million who turned up police recorded only four arrests - all white people. It was a balmy day - 84 degrees, clear skies and a light breeze, and there were some familiar faces in the crowd. Sidney Poitier, Charlton Heston, Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr were there. Marlon Brando carried an electric cattle prod in his hands to symbolise police brutality. King was the day's final speaker and everything in his speech from the cadence of his delivery to the lyrical repetition of its most vital refrains ("We have come", "I have a dream", "Let freedom ring") drew on the religious traditions of black American politics that merge the pulpit with the podium. It was a basic message made beautiful by his mastery of metaphor. Words to him were like stone to a skilled sculptor; raw material which he apparently effortlessly and deftly chiselled away to mould, shape and define something of aesthetic as well as practical value.

By most accounts it was not his greatest speech. Indeed, he had actually started to wind it up without its signature passage when the singer Mahalia Jackson, who stood nearby, encouraged him to go on. When he began to tell the crowd: "Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama," she urged him: "Tell them about your dream Martin. Tell them about the dream."

With encouragement from the audience King went on to draw upon a version of a speech he had made many times before (he had delivered it to insurance executives in Detroit only a week before) which centred on his dream of a society in which race was no longer a boundary to individual opportunity and collective strength.

But on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, with the eyes and the ears of the world upon him, the substance of the words rose to the symbolism of the occasion. In a nation apprehensive about its global status in a decade that would see its attempts to assert its military and political hegemony rebuffed, the speech was a precision strike. Starting with Lincoln and ending with "a dream rooted in the American dream" it challenged segregation but left almost everything else that white Americans held dear intact.

Not surprisingly blacks and whites understood both the speech and the march differently. Eighteen days later, four black girls, changing into their choir robes after Sunday school class, were killed during the fire bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama.

A Newsweek poll shortly afterwards showed that 3% of African-Americans and 74% of whites believed that "Negroes were moving too fast". Given the underlying conditions of racial inequality that prompted the march, it is also not surprising that many of those differences still exist.

For many white Americans the passage of civil-rights legislation two years later drew a line under the civil rights era. Since there were now no legal barriers to black participation, some chose to ignore the economic, social and political barriers that remained. Not only would they resist demands to address the legacy of segregation and slavery through affirmative action. They would do so with King's own words, insisting that candidates for university and work be "judged not on the colour of their skin but the content of their character".

But King had stated clearly that "1963 is not an end but a beginning". In an interview just a week before his death in 1968 he outlined the priorities that would make the dream a reality. "In the past in the civil rights movement, we have been dealing with segregation and all of its humiliation," he said. "I think it is absolutely necessary now to deal massively and militantly with the economic problem. The grave problem facing us is the problem of economic deprivation, with the syndrome of bad housing and poor education and improper health facilities all surrounding this basic problem."

His call for "sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners sitting down together at the table of brotherhood", was sincere, but not the whole story. Integration had won African-Americans the opportunity to eat in any restaurant. Only equality could ensure that they would be able to pay the bill.

Integration for them was not an end in itself but the means towards what has proved the far more elusive goal of equality. In King's words they "came to the nation's capital to cash a cheque... that will give [them] the riches of freedom and the security of justice".

They are still waiting for America to honour it.

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