Conservative radio and television commentator Glenn Beck urged thousands of supporters gathered Saturday on the National Mall to renew their faith both in God and in the nation because the country faces a choice of whether to “advance or perish.”
Set at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial on a sun-drenched afternoon, Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally was heavily religious and not overtly political. Speaker after speaker praised the nation’s military, its Founding Fathers and Lincoln.
They spoke in soaring terms of the rally’s importance, repeatedly telling the crowd that America is at a moment of spiritual and moral peril, and that their gathering represented the path to revival.
“This is a day that we can start the heart of America again,” Beck said. “It has nothing to do with politics. It has everything to do with God. Everything [with] turning our face back to the values and the principles that made us great.”
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was a featured speaker, invited not as a political leader, she told the crowd, but as the mother of a soldier who fought on behalf of the nation. Still, her remarks were peppered with references to how elected officials had led the nation astray.
“It is so humbling to get to be here with you today, patriots -- you who are motivated and engaged and concerned, knowing to never retreat,” she said. “No, we must not fundamentally transform America as some would want; we must restore America and restore her honor.”
The speaker list was diverse, including African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans; Jews and Christians; clergymen, military veterans and sports stars, including Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals. The crowd, however, was overwhelmingly white.
The rally took place on the 47th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech -- at the same spot on the National Mall. Palin, Beck and other speakers -- including King’s niece, Alveda King -- made note of the anniversary, though organizers said the date for the rally was a coincidence.
Alveda King has been outspoken in her stands against abortion and gay marriage, and has compared “tea party” activism to the civil rights movement. “I too have a dream,” she said. “I have a dream that America will pray and God will forgive us our sins.”
Beck refrained from saying the rally would “reclaim the civil rights movement,” as he predicted in the weeks before.
But critics, including civil rights leaders who organized a counter-demonstration, said Beck’s rally disgraced King’s memory.
“Just because you got the spot doesn’t mean you’re standing up for the dream,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, at a much smaller gathering at Washington’s Dunbar High School.
The large turnout at Beck’s gathering underscored the potency of the conservative movement that follows Beck, Palin and the tea party activists.
Crowd sizes are difficult to estimate on the National Mall. Federal officials and District of Columbia authorities refrain from making even informal estimates. Organizers estimated that 500,000 people gathered on the Mall, and said 120,000 more were watching the event streamed to a dedicated Facebook page.
Though there was no independent confirmation of the estimate, the crowd was densely packed and stretched for blocks, approximating events that have been estimated at 200,000 or more.
“I think a lot of people have arisen to the real trouble our nation is in right now,” said Kim Schmidtner, 41, a small-business owner from Pennsylvania. “We’re disappointed when we elect Republicans, then we’re disappointed when we elect Democrats. We have to go back to the founding principles of our country.”
Most of the crowd on the Mall heeded organizers’ requests to come without political signs and posters, but some brought flags reading “Don’t tread on me,” the Revolutionary War banner that has become a staple of the tea party movement.
By the time Beck’s demonstration ended, Sharpton’s group had begun marching to the National Mall for a rally at an open area adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial.
Beck supporters lounged in patches of shade along the 2-mile-long lawn as a line of demonstrators representing labor unions, African American organizations and other groups marched down Independence Avenue.
Some had anticipated the possibility of tension because of the dueling rallies, but the march proceeded peacefully. Marchers sang and cheered, often echoing the religious tone of the Beck rally.
Colby Itkowitz of the Allentown Morning Call contributed to this report.