Follow in the footsteps of America’s civil rights movement, with a tour of its historic capital. By Aaron Millar At his memorial in Washington DC, the statue of Martin Luther King Jr is half finished. The legs and back disappear, like a ghost, into a slab of uncarved white marble. His face is determined and resolute, but not yet satisfied. A line from his “I Have a Dream” speech, from 1963, is etched into the rock: “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” His sculpture is unfinished for a reason – the struggle continues.
The civil rights movement was about racial equality, but it was also about living up to the guarantees of the constitution, to “cash a cheque,” as Dr King put it, “[on the] promissory note to which every American was to fall heir” – that all individuals, regardless of who they are or where they’re from, would be given the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Now something’s brewing again. Fuelled by the far right rhetoric of the Trump presidency, and a growing distrust in political and economic systems, a new civil rights movement has been born – one based not just on race but on LGBQT rights, economic rights, immigration rights and the environmental rights of all future generations. The new civil rights movement, the resistance as it has come to be known, may be angry at Trump, but it’s also about cashing that cheque.
Which is why I’ve come to Washington DC – to see where the great experiment in self-governance began. There is nowhere better to understand America’s political hopes and dreams, to get a sense of the roots of the division in America and the future of the resistance now.
But there are other reasons to visit, too. Zagat recently rated Washington DC as the number one foodie destination in America. And the historic Georgetown district, with its grand, red-brick homes and cobbled pavements, is lively and fun, filled with shops, restaurants and bars.
There are many decently priced hotels in Washington. One of the best value is probably the Tabard Inn in Dupont Circle, mentioned in John Grisham’s Pelican Brief . But if you can afford to splash out for one night the Watergate Hotel is worth it for its legacy alone. It was here, in 1972, that employees of President Nixon spent the night after illegally raiding the offices of the Democratic National Committee nearby. It may be marred in scandal, but it’s spectacular: bold, midcentury modern design filled with gold, glamour, and the best whisky bar in the city.
If you’re here for the history, the
Parts of the Capitol building, the Statue of Freedom, and even the White House, were built by men in chains
best place to start is where Dr King ended his march, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He chose this spot because, in many ways, it represented a full circle for African Americans. The man who had signed the Emancipation Proclamation and freed the slaves stood watch as thousands came to demand the fruits of that promise. It’s a moving place. The great obelisk of the Washington Memorial, the pillars of the National Archives, home of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and the rotunda of the Capitol – they are a powerful sight, but a conflicting one, too.
Many of these monuments were made by slaves. Parts of the Capitol building, the Statue of Freedom which sits on top, even the White House itself were built by men in chains. This country was founded on that paradox. Lincoln freed the slaves and was shot in Ford’s Theatre down the road for doing so. Dr King’s dream, those words that seem so obvious now, were viewed by many as a threat: J Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI at the time, worked tirelessly to undermine his efforts. The Civil Rights Act, far from being unanimously received, was constantly obstructed by southern members of the congress. Only the assassination of Kennedy, and the outrage that followed, had the political muscle to push it through.
Away from the politics, there is much else in Washington to admire. Ben’s Chili Bowl on U-Street, home of the chili half smoke, is a DC institution and has welcomed everyone from Chris Rock to the cast of There’s also Capitol Lounge for pizza and $5 margaritas; and the Cozy Den Coffee Shop, with the excellent bookstore above which hosts regular author talks and events. Baba, just across the Potomac river in Arlington, serves craft cocktails in a cool speakeasy setting and a chocolate and orange dessert that tastes like Jaffa Cakes.
I saved the best until last with a visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. The first museum of its kind in the country, it has sold out every day since it opened a year ago. The journey begins in the basement, with slave ships coming to the New World, and winds slowly upwards through cotton fields and segregation to three floors of art, music, sports, dancing – a celebration of African American culture and the influence of black lives on the country today. Nowhere is the story of America’s division, and the bridges that have overcome it, better told. What better way to end a trip in Washington?
Double rooms at the Tabard Inn (tabardinn.com) start at £139 and at the Watergate Hotel (thewatergatehotel. com) cost £200. Flights from London to Washington DC with Virgin Atlantic (virginatlantic.com), cost from £700
Made in DC: (clockwise from main image) the Martin Luther King memorial; Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture; Georgetown; Ford’s Theatre; the Potomac River; and Abraham Lincoln