Woman who saw Martin Luther King dream up his famous speech
One stiflingly hot afternoon in the spring of 1963, Candace Allen was grilling sausages for a barbecue in her best friend's backyard in Stamford, Connecticut.
The 14-year-old could hear her father and some other men talking behind her but, too busy with the task at hand, she didn't take much notice.
Three months later, though, one of the men repeated the same words, and this time Allen – and the rest of the world – listened.
The date was August 28, the man was Martin Luther King and the words were: "I have a dream."
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Five long decades on, there are few who cannot quote, or at least recognise, these seminal words, spoken from the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
And on the 50th anniversary this month, people across the globe are set to celebrate with parades, concerts and statues.
For Allen, remembering the speech isn't simply something that happens on prominent anniversaries; it's something she's done every day ever since she heard it.
"I was politically aware before that moment, but the speech solidified my dedication," she says.
This was her dedication to the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement of Sixties America. It was a cause for which Allen would later become a highly active figure; a cause steeped into her conscience from early childhood.
"I was one of only two black families in the area where I lived, so you couldn't be politically unaware – even aged 14. I wasn't just a kid, I was the negro kid, and that imbued everything that we were." Visiting her cousin in Richmond, Virginia, she had to leave the shop to eat an ice cream soda because only whites could stay inside.
She couldn't date any of the white boys in her class and, despite being prom queen, her father "would have had to drive up and down the Eastern Seaboard trying to find someone I was allowed to go with".
Even more poignantly, she remembers how her mother once went to hospital to have her appendix removed. When she came home again, she asked the priest at the local church why he hadn't visited her on the ward. "He told her that perhaps she would be better joining a different congregation," says Allen.
It wasn't just these experiences that shaped the young Allen – her whole life was permeated with an unerring hope for change.
Her father and Jackie Robinson (the first black player allowed into Major League Baseball), along with his children – the other black family in the area – were actively involved in raising money for the Civil Rights Movement, particularly for protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, who had been held in jail after protests over racial segregation in a school.
"That's what that barbecue in the backyard was for – raising funds to help the prisoners and the campaign," she says. "Ella Fitzgerald was there too, along with other key figures of the movement."
One of these figures was Dr King, who had come to national prominence as a leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, who keenly advocated the use of non-violent tactics in the battle for civil rights, and who would talk himself into the history books.
"Although I didn't hear exactly what they were saying that afternoon, looking back they must have been discussing the rally and the speech to be held a few weeks later."
It has now come to light that the speech, at this planning stage, did not include the rousing "I have a dream" chapter. King had spoken of this "dream" in previous lower-profile speeches – ones Allen remembers hearing at various churches – and it was deemed too repetitive to mention again.
It came back into play, though, when King was reaching the end of his speech and realised the 250,000-strong crowd in front of him were sated – but not inspired.
"The delivery up until then had been good," agrees Allen. "But it didn't have the cadence of his preaching, it didn't have the power. Once he started riffing on 'I have a dream' though... Well, it still give me chills whenever I hear it."
It was fortunate that she managed to hear the speech at all, as she was craning her neck around a tree hundreds of metres back from King's platform.
"My father remembers seeing the stage, but I remember it differently," she says, laughing.
The facts she is more sure of are that they took cheese sandwiches with them as snacks, and that she was given – and still has – a white commemorative pen.
"We flew to the outskirts of the city by private plane, but I remember the buses into the rally were packed. This was a time before the internet or mobile phones.
"The organisers of the rally had one small room and a couple of telephones, so everyone had been rallied simply by hard, dedicated campaigning. Seeing all these people and being part of that was so exciting."
In the following days that excitement reverberated around the country, with campaigners daring to believe that their message of peaceful change in racial rights had finally been heard.
But just weeks later, on September 15, a church on 16th Street in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed, killing four young black girls. The tide for more forceful change already existed, but after this monstrous act a more militant Black Power movement gained momentum.
"King wasn't seen to be doing enough," Allen recalls, talking candidly about how when she went to study at Harvard a few years later – as one of 15 black students – she became increasingly radicalised, losing sight of King's call for calm. "We were black, young, proud and angry," she adds simply. "We were sick of waiting for change."
The years after King's speech had witnessed some of the changes that campaigners had demanded, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But the road was still strewn with obstacles.
Fast forward to 2008 and finally America had the ultimate symbol of racial equality – the election of its first black president, Barack Obama.
Allen, who worked for 20 years in the film industry (she was the first female African-American member of the Hollywood Directors' Guild) and is now an author, of Soul Music: the Pulse of Race and Music, and journalist, was involved in Obama's election campaign.
"I told myself, 'He's not not going to get in because of something I didn't do'. I was supporting him from the start," she says.
"It's very important to celebrate the anniversary of King's speech," she adds. "Especially with everything that's happening in the US with the Trayvon Martin case [the black teenager who was fatally shot by a neighbour last year].
"The fight isn't over; 50 years on from the speech is the right time to galvanise people back into it."
A campaigning spirit, set alight on that eventful muggy afternoon in Washington, continues to live on.
Do you have a dream? What would you wish for? Let us know by commenting below.