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Sharpton's 'Reclaim the Dream' event brings thousands to honor MLK

By Avis Thomas-Lester, Hamil R. Harris and Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 28, 2010; 5:50 PM

Thousands of people joined the Rev. Al Sharpton and other leaders Saturday to commemorate the anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington in 1963. The event, billed as "Reclaim the Dream," included a five-mile march that culminated at the Mall, where conservative talk show host Glenn Beck had organized the simultaneous "Restoring Honor" rally.

In an interview before the gathering began at Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington, Sharpton said he called the event to show respect for the ideals of King, who made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech 47 years ago near where Beck spoke to thousands Saturday.

"People are clear in what Dr. King's dream was about, and we will not react to those who try to distort that dream," Sharpton said. He was one of several prominent leaders who condemned Beck's rally, despite cries from organizers that "Restoring Honor" was not intended to dishonor King or his work.

Police kept an alert eye on the crowds for both events, concerned that skirmishes might result from the opposing camps. The events prompted crowds at end-of-the-line Metro stations because of heavy ridership by those heading in from the suburbs. Metro officials said several stations were busy because of riders unfamiliar with how to buy fare cards. To ease the crunch, officials recommended that people at the Franconia-Springfield station (at the end of the Blue line in Fairfax County) and at the Shady Grove station (at the end of the Red line in Montgomery County) use other stations.

At one point, a line was wrapped around the block near Dunbar High School because of a bottleneck to get through the door to the athletic field, which, along with the bleachers, was filled by rally participants. Speakers addressed everything from education to ending gun violence to gay rights to congressional voting privileges for the District.

Early at the event, a gospel choir took the stage after a fervent prayer by Barbara Williams-Skinner, president of the Skinner Leadership Institute.

"What do you do when you've given your all? Child, you just stand," the crowd quietly sang.

Williams-Skinner made strong ties between the 1963 rally at which King spoke of his "dream" and the rally at the Northwest Washington high school. "Like Dr. King, we believe that the bank of justice is not bankrupt," she said. "We thank you God for raising up President Barack Obama as a small down payment on that dream."

Bianca Farmer, a senior at Dunbar, drew applause when she told the crowd to continue to celebrate the achievement that Obama represents. "We must be fearful of stopping there," she said. "The fight is not in the same arena as it was 47 years ago, but the fight lives on."

Some leaders Saturday pointed to what they characterized as lost ground in the quest for the principles that King held dear. "When I look at my television, I don't see the King crowd of blacks and whites together," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who worked as an aide for King at the 1963 march.

NAACP President Ben Jealous said: "We are not sure what the message of the Beck rally is, since he told them to leave their signs at home. We have to revitalize jobs and schools and reclaim Dr. King's dream."

Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the rally participants that education is the civil rights issue of this generation. "Parents: Turn off the television. Educators: We have to stop making excuses," he said. "The dividing line in our country today is less around white and black and more about educational opportunity. We've been too satisfied with second-class schools."

A highlight of the Dunbar event was the presentation to a local student, Leah Carr of Northwest Washington, of a $100,000 scholarship to Bethune-Cookman University in Florida. Carr, who has a 3.5 grade-point average, said she had been unsure that she could attend college because her mother struggles to keep food on the table.

Carr came to volunteer at the rally and was stunned when Bethune-Cookman President Larry Handfield presented her with a four-year scholarship. "I can't believe it," Carr said. "I came here to serve the people."

The mood of the rally was not always as light.

"We will not stand silent as some seek to bamboozle Dr. King's dream," said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. "We reclaim the dream of Dr. King for the 21st century. We reclaim this dream because we are here to say we must be one nation. We stand on the shoulders of our fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers."

Jaime Contreras, president of SEIU-32BJ, said those gathered at the Mall with Beck "represent angry white people and hate-mongering." He added: "We will not let them stand in the way of the change we voted for!"

Cynthia Butler-McIntyre, national president of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, said the racial divisions between the rallies show that America has not yet become the "post-racial society" some claim it to be. "We came today to say that is a lie and the truth is not in it," she said.

Handfield pointed to educational inequities as a sign that King's dream has not been fully realized. "Part of the dream has become a reality but other parts have not," he said. "In this country still today there are cities where far less than 30 percent of black males are graduating to high school, therefore the dream is not yet complete."

Radio host Warren Ballentine quoted King when he told participants that both rallies' participants have something in common. "Dr. King once said, 'We may have come here on different ships but right now we're in the same boat.' "

Avis Jones DeWeever, executive director of the National Council of Negro Women, drew thunderous roars when she challenged those gathered to stand up for their place. "Don't let anyone tell you that they have the right to take their country back," she said. "It's our country, too. We will reclaim the dream. It was ours from the beginning."

The events resulted in no major skirmishes by mid-afternoon. Heat-related illnesses, as well as bee stings, twisted ankles, asthma attacks and issues with diabetes were reported; several people were transported to the hospital. None of the illnesses were considered serious or life-threatening, said D.C. Fire and EMS spokesman Pete Piringer.

The five-mile march organized by Sharpton started in the early afternoon. It snaked to the endpoint at the southeast side of the Mall, where the King Memorial is being built. Martin Luther King III was scheduled to speak there.

After walking several miles, former D.C. delegate Walter Fauntroy collapsed on a small stage where the King Memorial is to be built. He was taken to a local hospital for evaluation and was later released.

To the marchers, Sharpton said: "Let the line stretch. They already are going to say there were only 2,000 or 3,000 of you here. If people start heckling, smile at them. This ain't about you -- it's about Dr. King."

Staff writers Carol Morello and Lena Sun contributed to this report.

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