Washington Conservative commentator Glenn Beck and tea party champion Sarah Palin appealed Saturday to a vast, predominantly white crowd on the National Mall to help restore traditional American values and honor Martin Luther King’s message. Civil rights leaders who accused the group of hijacking King’s legacy held their own rally and march.
While Beck billed his event as nonpolitical, conservative activists said their show of strength was a clear sign that they can swing elections because much of the country is angry with what many voters call an out-of-touch Washington.
Palin told the tens of thousands who stretched from the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial to the grass of the Washington Monument that calls to transform the country weren’t enough. “We must restore America and restore her honor,” said the former Alaska governor, echoing the name of the rally, “Restoring Honor.”
Palin, the GOP vice presidential nominee in 2008 and a potential White House contender in 2012, and Beck repeatedly cited King and made references to the Founding Fathers. Beck put a heavy religious cast on nearly all his remarks, sounding at times like an evangelical preacher.
“Something beyond imagination is happening,” he said. “America today begins to turn back to God.”
Beck exhorted the crowd to “recognize your place to the creator. Realize that he is our king. He is the one who guides and directs our life and protects us.” He asked his audience to pray more. “I ask, not only if you would pray on your knees, but pray on your knees but with your door open for your children to see,” he said.
A group of civil rights activists organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton held a counter rally at a high school, then embarked on a three-mile march to the site of a planned monument honoring King. The site, bordering the Tidal Basin, was not far from the Lincoln Memorial where Beck and the others spoke about two hours earlier.
Sharpton and the several thousand marching with him crossed paths with some of the crowds leaving Beck’s rally. People wearing “Restoring Honor” and tea party T-shirts looked on as Sharpton’s group chanted “reclaim the dream” and “MLK, MLK.” Both sides were generally restrained, although there was some mutual taunting.
One woman from the Beck rally shouted to the Sharpton marchers: “Go to church. Restore America with peace.” Some civil rights marchers chanted “don’t drink the tea” to people leaving Beck’s rally.
Sharpton told his rally it was important to keep King’s dream alive and that despite progress more needs to be done. “Don’t mistake progress for arrival,” he said.
He poked fun at the Beck-organized rally, saying some participants were the same ones who used to call civil rights leaders troublemakers. “The folks who used to criticize us for marching are trying to have a march themselves,” he said. He urged his group to be peaceful and not confrontational. “If people start heckling, smile at them,” Sharpton said.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia’s delegate to Congress, said she remembers being at King’s march on Washington in 1963. “Glenn Beck’s march will change nothing. But you can’t blame Glenn Beck for his March-on-Washington envy,” she said.
Beck has said he did not intend to choose the King anniversary for his rally but had since decided it was “divine providence.” He portrayed King as an American hero.
Sharpton and other critics have noted that, while Beck has long sprouted anti-government themes, King’s famous march included an appeal to the federal government to do more to protect Americans’ civil rights.
The crowd — organizers had a permit for 300,000 — was a sea of people standing shoulder to shoulder across large expanses of the Mall. The National Park Service stopped doing crowd counts in 1997.