By Amy Gardner, Krissah Thompson and Philip Rucker
Sunday, August 29, 2010; 12:08 AM
Conservative commentator Glenn Beck on Saturday drew a sea of activists to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where he championed a religious brand of patriotism and called on the nation to recommit itself to traditional values he said were hallmarks of its exceptional past.
On the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, steps away from where it was delivered, Beck and fellow "tea party" icon Sarah Palin staked a claim to King's legacy and to that of the Founding Fathers. They urged a crowd that stretched to the Washington Monument to concentrate on the nation's accomplishments rather than on its psychological scars.
"Something that is beyond man is happening," Beck said. "America today begins to turn back to God."
The event was billed as "nonpolitical," and Beck steered clear of the partisan commentary that has made him a hero to many conservatives and a nemesis to many on the left. But political overtones were unmistakable, and the rally drew an enormous crowd - including many who said they were new to activism - that was energized and motivated to act.
The effort by Beck and Palin to lay claim to the mantle of the civil rights movement drew protests from the Rev. Al Sharpton and others who marched in a separate and much smaller event, to the Mall from Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington, to commemorate King's speech 47 years ago.
"The 'March on Washington' changed America," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said at the Sharpton rally, referring to King's speech. "Our country reached to overcome the low points of our racial history. Glenn Beck's march will change nothing."
The simultaneous rallies rendered the country's political and racial divisions in stark relief.
Sharpton drew a mostly black crowd of union members, church-goers, college students and civil rights activists. The Obama administration weighed in, too, with Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaking of education as the "civil rights issue of this generation."
The Beck crowd, meanwhile, was overwhelmingly white, and many in the crowd described themselves as conservatives with deep concern about the country's political leadership and its direction.
But the mood was peaceful and calm at both events, and by the time the Sharpton march arrived on the Mall, the crowd from Beck's rally had largely dispersed. Despite the potential for tension, the events appeared to produce none of the politically damaging imagery that emerged from some earlier tea party rallies.Numbers game
The attendance at Beck's gathering promises to be a subject of contention. Crowd sizes on the Mall are often controversial and notoriously difficult to estimate, so much so that law enforcement agencies have stopped providing numbers. At one point, Beck joked he had "just gotten word from the media that there are over a thousand people here today." Later, he told the 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 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."
Many in the audience said they had come because they fear that the country is at a perilous moment. They spoke in stark political terms. They carried "Don't Tread on Me" flags - an emblem of the tea party - and wore t-shirts with such messages such as "I Can See November From My House" and "RECESSION: When your neighbor loses his job. DEPRESSION: When you lose your job. RECOVERY: When Obama loses his job."
Others said they were motivated more by their deep appreciation of Beck, whose talk-radio show is the third-most popular in the country and who heavily promoted "Restoring Honor" on radio and on his television program on Fox News.
John Sawyers and Linda Adams said they flew in from Colorado because they are frustrated at what they call the "ruling class," at the health-care bill they say few supported, at schools that no longer require that students say the Pledge of Allegiance, and at elected officials who run on one platform and govern on another.
"We want our country to get back to its original roots," said Adams, 52, a university administrator who said her ancestors were on the Mayflower and fought in the American Revolution.
"It's not anger," said Sawyers, 47, an engineer who grew up on a farm in Virginia. "It's more, 'Guys, why are we going this way?' It's time for the silent majority to say it's wrong."
Sawyers, a registered Republican, and Adams, an independent, said they were moved to attend by Beck's theme of honor.
"Both of us are unhappy with the perception Obama is apologizing for everything we ever did," said Adams wearing a T-shirt with the slogan "Does the Constitution say we the sheeple?"
"We feel the United States is the greatest country," Adams added. "And we felt we had to do something."Military theme
Saturday's event came on the heels of a primary election season that has emboldened tea party activists - and with even more crucial midterm elections looming in November.
In Palin's home state of Alaska, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a member of the GOP leadership, is trailing in a primary behind a political neophyte whose underdog campaign was propelled by Palin and tea party groups. After Tuesday's primary, Persian Gulf War veteran and lawyer Joe Miller leads, although no winner has been declared and vote-counting continues.
Still, Democrats attempted to find political advantage in the rally by launching an offensive designed to link it to the Republican Party, and thereby portray Republicans as extremists beholden to the tea party agenda. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, assailed Republicans for pursuing a "destructive agenda" and called out the tea party movement for pushing the GOP to the "extreme right."
The event had a strong military theme, with Beck paying tribute to three soldiers. The rally was paid for through donations to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which funds scholarships for children of service members killed in action. During the rally, Beck announced that the foundation had raised $5.5 million for the event; he did not say how much would go toward event costs and how much to the causes the foundation supports.
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.
She said the military is "a force for good in this country, and that is nothing to apologize for." She honored three military veterans, hugging them onstage, and told people to look to them as inspiration, even when the nation's challenges might sometimes seem "insurmountable."
"But 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!"
firstname.lastname@example.org | email@example.com | firstname.lastname@example.org
Staff writers Amy Goldstein, Annie Gowen, Hamil Harris, Derek Kravitz, Carol Morello, Naomi Nix, Lois Romano, Lena H. Sun and Clarence Williams contributed to this report.