Competing Visions of America On Display at D.C. Rallies
||Richmond Times-Dispatch (VA)
||Sunday, August 29, 2010
Thousands of Virginians converged on the nation's capital yesterday to participate in two competing visions of the country's future 47 years after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
Tea-party chapters in the Richmond area alone sent 775 people on 15 chartered buses to the "Restoring Honor" rally, led by conservative radio and TV talk show host Glenn Beck at the site of King's famous address.
"We want to see some honor in our politicians," said Billy Mullins, a retired union boilermaker from Goochland County.
The Beck rally, featuring Sarah Palin, the 2008 GOP vice-presidential nominee, brought tens of thousands to the National Mall.
Thousands also thronged to Dunbar High School, on the other side of the U.S. Capitol, for a "Reclaim the Dream" march led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil-rights activist.
Angela Harris and Pam Jones, both teachers at Thomas C. Boushall Middle School in South Richmond, drove to the Sharpton rally to support President Barack Obama's agenda of education, jobs and health care.
They questioned whether the Beck rally was really about restoring America.
"To me, that means you're trying to take America back instead of going forward," said Harris, a Richmond resident and member of the Richmond alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.
While Beck billed his event as nonpolitical, conservative activists from around the nation said their show of strength was a clear sign that they can swing elections across the country and that much of the U.S. is angry with what many voters view as an out-of-touch Washington.
Beck and Palin appealed to a vast, predominantly white crowd to help restore traditional American values and honor King's message, even as some civil-rights leaders accused the group of hijacking King's legacy.
Palin told the tens of thousands who stretched from the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial to the grass of the Washington Monument that calls to transform the country are not enough.
"We must restore America and restore her honor," said the former Alaska governor, a potential GOP presidential candidate in 2012.
Beck put a heavy religious cast on nearly all of his remarks, sounding at times like an evangelical preacher.
"Something beyond imagination is happening," he said. "America today begins to turn back to God."
Beck exhorted the crowd to "recognize your place to the creator. Realize that he is our king. He is the one who guides and directs our life and protects us."
Civil-rights activists organized by Sharpton held a counter-rally at the high school, then embarked on a 3-mile march to the site of a planned monument honoring King. The site, bordering the Tidal Basin, was not far from the Lincoln Memorial where Beck spoke about two hours earlier.
Sharpton and the several thousand marching with him crossed paths with some of the crowds leaving Beck's rally. People wearing "Restoring Honor" and tea-party T-shirts looked on as Sharpton's group chanted, "Reclaim the dream," and, "MLK, MLK."
There was no sign of confrontation between the two groups, although there was some mutual taunting, according to The Associated Press.
The crowd for the Beck rally -- organizers had a permit for 300,000 -- was a sea of people standing shoulder to shoulder across large expanses of the Mall. The National Park Service stopped doing crowd counts in 1997 after the agency was accused of underestimating numbers for the 1995 Million Man March.
In Henrico County yesterday, the earliest Amtrak train from Staples Mill Station left about 6:35 a.m. and was packed with about 400 people, most of them planning to attend the Beck rally to express their displeasure with the president and Congress.
"If you disagree with this administration, you're either [labeled] a racist or some kind of right-wing nut," said Tom Evans, a retired DuPont Co. supervisor from Chesterfield County.
"I want them to start paying attention to what we think."
Beck sought to dampen overt political appeals by his audience, while Sharpton urged marchers to do nothing to taint the celebration of King's legacy.
Palin, a favorite of the tea-party movement, twice invoked "the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.," as well as Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
"Look around you -- you are not alone," she said. "You are America."
Sharpton scoffed at the notion that Beck's rally promoted King's vision.
"They may have the Mall, but we have the message," he said. "They may have the platform, but we have the dream."
"And while they're down there, they ought to ask Abraham Lincoln why he fought against states' rights and held the union together," he said.
But the Beck rally exerted a powerful emotional draw on people from Virginia and across the country. Travelers on Amtrak came from as far away as Utah and Kansas to visit family in the Richmond area and make the trip to Washington.
"We don't like what is going on in this country," said Faye Sanderson, who traveled from Salt Lake City with her parents, Marilyn and Harvey Gray, to stay with her sister and brother-in-law, Tammy and Ken Agee of Chesterfield County.
"We love the idea of people getting together peacefully and taking a stand," Sanderson said.
Bobby Bowman, a Dinwiddie County resident, took the train with his wife, Joy, because he is concerned about government spending. He discounted objections to Beck scheduling the rally on the King anniversary.
"I don't think people in this country realize how lucky they are," Bowman said. "People play the race card to divide us."
Former Richmond resident Joe Yates said that goes both ways. A white liberal activist from Winchester, Yates said that he attended the Sharpton rally partly because the media had portrayed it as an event for black people, and Beck's rally as a gathering of whites.
"It's important for people to come out, especially whites," said Gates, who lived in Richmond's Oregon Hill neighborhood until 1988.
"I'm here, too," he said. "I wouldn't go there," he said, referring to the Beck rally.
Groups at both rallies heard from members of the King family.
Alveda King, a niece of the slain civil-rights leader, appealed to those at the Beck rally to "focus not on elections or on political causes but on honor, on character . . . not the color of our skin."
Martin Luther King III said at the site of the planned memorial that his father in 1967 and 1968 "was focused on economic empowerment. He did not live to see that come to fruition."
He added, "We have made great strides, but somehow we've got to create a climate so that everybody can do well, not just some."