The head of the National Park Service said Friday that the crowd at the Million Man March on Monday might have been larger than his agency’s official estimate of 400,000.
“Nobody really knows the number,” said Roger G. Kennedy, the Park Service director, in an interview. “We do know that it’s north of 450,000, 500,000 or maybe 600,000, and that’s a lot of bodies.”
Kennedy spoke as lawyers from the Park Service and the Nation of Islam, which sponsored the event, met in an effort to resolve wide differences over just how many people had actually participated in the event on the Mall.
The meeting, Kennedy said, grew out of the Nation of Islam’s threat to sue the Park Service over the size of its crowd count. Kennedy said he did not attend the meeting.
The Nation of Islam, which is led by Louis Farrakhan, said on Monday, before the official program began, that the event had lived up to its name by drawing 1 million people.
Farrakhan and his organization have a sizable stake in the turnout as a gauge of his influence and appeal among blacks in America.
The dispute over the count grew with another estimate, of 870,000 people, made later in the week by Boston University’s Center for Remote Sensing, in a study commissioned by ABC-TV.
Then Friday, the local official who headed the District of Columbia’s planning for the rally said city officials had figured that “more than 1 million people” attended the daylong rally.
By congressional request, the Park Service has been counting heads at large events on federal property in Washington for two decades, and even by its own accounting, the Million Man March, which won praise from the police for being peaceful and orderly, ranked as the largest demonstration in the city’s history.
But few sponsoring organizations have ever had so much at stake in demonstrating the appeal of one person as the Nation of Islam had at this event with Farrakhan, a fiery speaker best known outside the black community for anti-Semitic and black separatist comments.
For years, mainstream black groups and political organizations have tried to discount his influence by focusing on his racist statements, rather than the themes of responsibility and self-sufficiency that he includes in many lectures.
Farrakhan and other Nation of Islam officials promoted the march as an endorsement of Farrakhan as the new leading voice for black Americans. As a result, the Park Service estimate, made late on Monday, came as a stinging disappointment and public relations problem for them.
In a news conference Tuesday, Farrakhan, saying the Park Service had undercounted the crowd, accused the department of racism.
Kennedy said his agency intended to study the possibility of no longer counting crowds, noting that most sponsoring organizations of events that draw hundreds of thousands of people complain that Park Service estimates are too low.
“It happens every time,” Kennedy said. “Right-to-lifers want more people than pro-choice people and vice versa. It’s always so competitive. They never sit down and say, ‘Thank you very much.”’