On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, at the spot Martin Luther King Jr. spoke 47 years ago, conservative commentator Glenn Beck told a huge "Restoring Honor" rally Saturday that the United States has "wandered in the darkness" for too long.
Beck is a widely watched Fox News personality and dogged critic of President Obama. But on Saturday, he drew a line from the biblical Moses to George Washington to Abraham Lincoln -- whose statue loomed behind him -- to King who gave his "I have a dream" speech in 1963, a seminal spark of the modern civil rights movement. His decision to schedule his rally on the King anniversary and his pledge to "reclaim the civil right movement" drew criticism
, but Beck – a self-described student of American history -- said it was not intentional and attributed the date to "divine providence."
Beck said on Saturday that of all the leaders he admires, "I can relate to Martin Luther King the most," because he was a man who made a difference.
New York civil rights leader Al Sharpton held a "Reclaim the Dream" march and rally at the Tidal Basin, several long blocks away from the Beck event. Sharpton has said he has honored King's speech every year, and his plan was not in reaction to Beck. "We come because the dream has not been achieved," Sharpton said on Saturday. "We've made a lot of progress. But we still have a long way to go."
On a comfortable, sunny day in the nation's capital, the predominantly white crowd at the National Mall, many dressed in American-flag inspired shirts and caps, soaked it all up and occasionally broke into chants of "USA. USA." Organizers had a permit for a gathering of 300,000, the AP said. But the National Park Service no longer provides estimates for the size of crowds at the many rallies on the Mall.
Beck said what was happening at his rally had nothing to do with politics "and everything to do with God." The crowd, many clutching American flags, spilled from the Lincoln Memorial nearly a mile all way to the Washington Monument. "Something that is beyond man is happening," Beck said, said. "America today begins to turn back to God."
Beck had billed "Restoring Honor" as a non-political salute to the military, with proceeds after expenses going to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, a nonprofit that provides scholarships to children of Special Ops troops killed in action or training.
Former Alaska Gov, Sarah Palin also spoke, as the "mother of a soldier;" Palin's son Track served in the U.S. Army in Iraq. But Palin, who said she felt the "spirit" of Martin Luther King Jr., did not avoid politics altogether. "We must not fundamentally transform America as some would want," she said. "We must restore America and restore her honor."
Beck awarded what he called "civilian" medals of honor, modeled on the military's Purple Heart, with themes of faith, hope and charity.
St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa introduced star player Albert Pujols, who won the Hope award for his foundation which helps people with Down syndrome. Pujols, who also aids the poor in the Dominican Republic, said he was happy to have the chance "to share the gospel of Jesus Christ." The Cardinals were in Washington for a series with the Nationals.
The more than three-hour event often seemed like a religious revival, with Beck calling on the crowd to go home and "pray on your knees," with the door open for your children to see. His King tribute focused on content of character, avoiding the 1963 speech's words on economic justice and warning that "America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.' "
Dr. Alveda King, Martin Luther King's niece, did evoke the injustice of the times when she shared the stage with Beck. (King's son Martin Luther King III supported Sharpton's event.) The historical 1963 scenes that introduced her were reminders that the crowd that filled the same space 47 years ago was much more diverse.
When the African American singers joined her in a snippet of "Lift every Voice and Sing" -- the James Weldon Johnson poem set to music and known as the black national anthem – few in the crowd knew any of the words.
Nevertheless, many were moved, particularly by Beck's focus on the spiritual. "I'm a Christian," said Diane Gibson of Natchitoches, La. Her husband, Jim, said that the only way to "bring America back together" was "to turn back to Christ." While Diane said it was not about Democrats or Republicans, many at the event have been active in conservative politics and said they have attended Tea Party movement rallies.
Todd Burek of San Antonio, Texas, who traveled to Washington four times in the last year for demonstrations, found the day "pretty inspiring," and hoped some of Beck's inspiration would rub off on son Matthew, 7. Burek said, "Our country is headed in the wrong direction, away from the values our founders put in place." He called Martin Luther King "an American hero" and felt the presence of King's niece proved he would have approved of Beck. "Contrary to what they say," Burek said, "Beck is a good person who believes in what he says."