Politics & Government

Rival D.C. rallies underscore the nation's divisions

One rally participant brought Obama to the Glenn Beck rally.
One rally participant brought Obama to the Glenn Beck rally. Erika Bolstad / MCT

WASHINGTON — Standing on the hallowed ground of the nation's civil rights icons, the leading conservative luminaries of the tea party movement on Saturday called on tens of thousands of people gathered on the National Mall to turn to the values of the founding fathers to restore what they say is a deficit of honor in America.

Four miles away, a smaller but no less spirited crowd filled a high school football stadium and the sidewalks around it, then marched through Washington's streets, angrily protesting that the first rally had usurped the memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the 47th anniversary of King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

The two sides came together briefly as the marchers — nearly all of them black — passed near the Lincoln Memorial, where tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people — almost all of them white — had streamed to hear Fox News personality Glenn Beck and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin at Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally.

One marcher hoisted a white sign with black letters reading: "Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin are racists," and there was verbal sparring. But there were no physical confrontations and no arrests as police on horseback and motorcycles, along with U.S. Park Protective Service agents in navy blue SUV's, kept the two groups apart.

Conscious of the stigma of some of the anti-Obama imagery of tea party rallies during the health care debate this spring, Beck urged attendees not to bring signs. There was still plenty of self expression, however.

The Stars and Stripes and the tea party standard, the yellow 'Don't Tread on Me' flag, all waved above the crowd. Plenty of people wore T-shirts or stickers with pithy sayings such as "I can see November from my house, too."

Wearing "Proud to Be American!" shirts, the Beck boosters hoisted American flags and chanted: "USA, USA!" as the marchers passed the Robert F. Kennedy Justice Department building. The marchers waved photos of King at them and chanted: "MLK, MLK!"

"The First Amendment is a wonderful thing," John Green, a Beck rally attendee who works for a furniture leasing firm in Akron, Ohio, said as the King marchers passed him.

Beck's "Restoring Honor" event had the air of a sprawling church picnic on a steamy late-summer day — part somber sermon and part rally.

Beck repeatedly alluded to both King and Abraham Lincoln, and at one point read excerpts fro the Gettysburg Address. He said he believes the rally marks the day that America will begin "to turn back to God."

"For too long, this country has wandered in darkness and we have wandered in darkness in periods from the beginning," Beck said. "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," Beck said, "we are going to concentrate on the good things in America, the things we have accomplished and the things we can do tomorrow."

At Dunbar High School in northwest Washington, the Rev. Al Sharpton sounded a different theme as the throng there prepared to march across the capital's center city to the site of a planned memorial for King not far from the Lincoln Memorial.

"They want to disgrace this day!" Sharpton said. "We ain't giving them this day! This is our day!"

Watch the Sharpton-led march

Sharpton said it didn't matter that Beck and Palin spoke from the very spot where King addressed the March on Washington in 1963.

"We can dream anywhere we are!" Sharpton said. "We can dream from hospital beds! We can dream from jail cells! We don't need to stand on the spot!"

Among Beck's featured speakers was King's niece, Alveda King, whose presence in part prompted the question: Who exactly owns the legacy of the country's civil rights pioneers?

Palin, whose address to the rally was its most overtly political moment, suggested that those attending the event have "the same steel spine and the moral courage of Washington and Lincoln and Martin Luther King."

"It is in you," she said. "It will sustain you as it sustained them."

That sentiment made some of the rare African-Americans who attended the event uncomfortable.

"I think it takes away from what the focus of today should be," said Leah Allen, 17, a Howard University freshman who attended the rally out of curiosity with her friend, Lindsey Parker, 18, a political science major.

No crowd estimates for either demonstration were available, though it was clear the Beck rally was much larger. People lined both sides of the reflecting pool facing the Lincoln Memorial for the Beck rally. Hotels throughout the Washington, D.C., region were sold out, and Metro, the Washington-area subway system, put out an advisory Saturday morning warning of crowded conditions on all lines.

It was so crowded that many people had a limited view and couldn't hear the event well. At one point, people chanted "louder, louder, louder" as Beck spoke, and Beck complied.

Maria Conto, 47, of Albany, N.Y., said she and her 11-year-old son, Anton, were enjoying themselves, despite the difficulty in hearing and seeing. They'd staked out a spot on a beach towel, in a place where they could enjoy a crowd of like-minded people.

"I like the idea that it isn't a straight-ahead political thing, and it's about honoring our heroes," Conto said.

There was no disputing, however, that the two rallies showed the country's political divisions more than its unity. As the marchers moved down Sixth Street through Washington's Chinatown, onlookers cheered them from apartment balconies in the Wah Luck House complex, its name displayed in Chinese characters.

Lawrence Hillman, who'd come from Detroit on a bus with other members of the Central United Methodist Church for the Sharpton-led march, barely contained his anger at the Beck rally.

"Beck's doing what he's doing for a publicity stunt," Hillman said. "It's absolutely disrespectful. Why would you mimic a great man who was all about unity? Glenn Beck is not about unity. It's a slap in the face."


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