WASHINGTON – A sea of people rallied at the hallowed site of the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday as conservative commentator Glenn Beck and other heroes of the tea party movement honored Americans serving in the military and delivered impassioned calls to turn the nation back to God and to protect the traditional values they say make the country exceptional.
Claiming the legacy of the nation’s Founding Fathers and repeatedly evoking civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., Beck, Sarah Palin and other speakers at the “Restoring Honor” rally exhorted a sprawling and overwhelmingly white crowd to concentrate not on the history that has scarred the nation but instead on what makes it “good.”
“For too long, this country has wandered in darkness, and we have wandered in darkness in periods from the beginning,” Beck said, at times pacing at the memorial. “We have had moments of brilliance and moments of darkness. But this country has spent far too long worried about scars and thinking about the scars and concentrating on the scars.
“Today,” he continued, “we are going to concentrate on the good things in America, the things that we have accomplished – and the things that we can do tomorrow.”
Beck’s attempt to appropriate the legacy of King, who delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the same marble steps 47 years ago to the day, occurred as the Rev. Al Sharpton and other civil rights leaders organized a simultaneous event. They rallied outside Dunbar High School in northwest Washington.
“The ‘March on Washington’ changed America,” Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said at the Sharpton rally, referencing King’s 1963 speech. “Our country reached to overcome the low points of our racial history. Glenn Beck’s march will change nothing. But you can’t blame Glenn Beck for his ‘March on Washington’ envy. Too bad he doesn’t have a message worthy of the place.”
Avis Jones DeWeever, executive director of the National Council of Negro Women, also spoke to the crowd at Dunbar High School: “Don’t let anyone tell you that they have the right to take their country back. It’s our country, too. We will reclaim the dream. It was ours from the beginning.”
Beck’s rally had been billed as a peaceful and nonpolitical “re-dedication” of the traditional honor and values of the nation. Throngs of people crowded shoulder to shoulder for six city blocks, from the Lincoln Memorial past the reflecting pool to the World War II Memorial. From there, the ralliers spread out as they spilled onto the grounds of the Washington Monument.
The size of the gathering promises to be a subject of contention. Demonstrations on the Mall are notoriously difficult to estimate, with no official source for such figures. At one point, Beck joked he had “just gotten word from the media that there is over a thousand people here today.” Later, he told he crowd he heard it was “between 300,000 and 500,000.”
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., speaking soon after the Beck rally at her own impromptu event nearby, said: “We’re not going to let anyone get away with saying there were less than a million here today – because we were witnesses.”
Beck, a Fox News host, has developed a national following by assailing President Barack Obama and Democrats, and he warned Saturday that “our children could be slaves to debt.” But he insisted that the rally “has nothing to do with politics. It has everything to do with God, turning our faith back to the values and principles that made us great.”
King’s niece Alveda King, an anti-abortion activist, addressed Beck’s rally with a plea for prayer “in the public squares of America and in our schools.” Referencing her “Uncle Martin,” King called for national unity by repeatedly declaring “I have a dream.”
“I have a dream that America will pray and God will forgive us our sins and revive us our land,” King said. “On that day, we will all be able to lift every voice and sing of the love and honor that God desires of all his children.”
The crowd was not visibly angry. Rather, people said they had come to express their fear that the country is at a perilous moment.
But the much-discussed anger did sometimes appear. A counter-protester, Ben Thielen, 32, a District public-policy worker, caused a stir with a sign that said “It’s because of the 1st Amendment that Glenn Beck can spew his filth on the steps.”
Thielen said a gray-haired woman accosted him and tried to rip the placard out of his hand, screaming, “No signs! No signs!”
“She just came up to me and said, ‘No signs!’ and clawed me like a wild animal,” Thielen said, showing off red marks on his arms.
The crowd erupted when Beck introduced Palin, a tea party heroine and a former Republican vice presidential candidate. Palin said she was speaking not as a politician, but as the mother of a combat veteran. Evoking the legacies of King, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, Palin called on Americans to restore traditional values to the country.
“We must not fundamentally transform America, as some would want,” Palin said. “We must restore America and restore her honor.
“Here today, at the crossroads of our history, may this day be the change point,” Palin said. “Look around you. You’re not alone. You are Americans! You have the same steel spine and the moral courage of Washington and Lincoln and Martin Luther King. It is in you. It will sustain you as it sustained them.”
The crowd responded with chants of “USA! USA! USA!”
At the counter-demonstration at Dunbar, Joyce White arrived early to show her opposition to Beck.
“If we hadn’t elected a black president, do you think they would be doing this today?” she asked.
Tehuti Imhotep came from Baltimore with posters depicting black history from the middle passage through King’s 1968 march in support of trash haulers in Memphis.
Imhotep shouted at passers-by: “This is our real history. Beck’s trying to redefine the civil rights movement. How insensitive! King was about bringing people together. This man Beck is pulling people apart.”
The Sharpton rally was primarily African-American.
At the Beck rally, the recession weighed heavily on people’s minds.
“We just feel that government’s getting too large,” said Bill Bunting, 58, of Lancaster, Pa., who was laid off from his construction job this spring and now works as a real estate agent. “It’s mainly to send a message to politicians that we’re tired of the corruption, both Democrats and Republicans. They should go back to following the Constitution.”
Others came just for Beck, a television personality who has become a hero of the emboldened tea party movement. Beck repeatedly said the Saturday rally was intended to be “entirely” nonpolitical, but with the midterm elections nine weeks away, it is sure to be seen as a test of the strength and energy of the conservative movement.
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