By Jennifer H. Cunningham
ABOVE PHOTO: Rev. Al Sharpton, center, and others march through Washington, Saturday, Aug. 28, 2010, to the site of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial that is under construction on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech..
(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
WASHINGTON – Thousands braved humid temperatures to pack the bleachers, athletic field and street outside Dunbar High School for the “Reclaim the Dream” rally Saturday. The Rev. Al Sharpton, the last speaker of the event, received rapturous applause from a crowd of mostly African American supporters.
Sharpton told marchers not to engage with, or be dissuaded by TV and radio pundit Glenn Beck and his supporters, who simultaneously held a significantly larger, highly-publicized rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
“They may have the mall, but we have the message,” Sharpton said. “They may have the platform, but we have the dream. Just cause you got the spot, doesn’t mean you’re standing up for the dream.”
A few miles away, an estimated 300,000 people jammed the Lincoln Memorial for Beck’s “Restoring Honor” event, the same place where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech 47 years ago Saturday. Some there said they were spurred by political or religious reasons to attend.
“When the politicians are corrupt, things like this have to happen,” said Gus August Eller, who drove 20 hours from Wisconsin to attend the “Restoring Honor” event after growing disillusioned by his local officials.
For many attendees, the trip to Washington D.C. began overnight Saturday. Thousands who attended Sharpton’s rally boarded buses organized by the National Action Network and other civil rights groups, traveling from as far away as Chicago, Mississippi and Texas to attend the rally.
Zamirah El-Amin, a corporate lawyer from Harlem, rode to the rally on a National Action Network bus. She said she wanted to go to the “Reclaim the Dream” event, in part, to ensure King’s legacy was being upheld.
“It seems like there’s a lot of divisiveness in this country right now, and its very disheartening,” she said. “I couldn’t just sit home and let this day pass without trying to at least take the journey.”
After Sharpton’s speech, the crowd at Dunbar High School lined up, and then marched down N Street in the city’s Mount Vernon neighborhood, where some residents watched them from their windows or stoops. Scores of marchers chanted slogans like “No Justice! No Peace!” as they made their way to the King Memorial site. Many marchers wore T-shirts with images of King, President Obama or the first family on them. Others hoisted signs with slogans that included “Fired up? Vote!,” “Immigrant Struggles are Ours Too,” “Jesus Shares Our Dream,” and “Obama, Thanks for Saving the United States.”
Later, “Reclaim the Dream” marchers walked along the Tidal Basin, on the final leg of the 3-mile march, where they passed “Restoring Honor” participants, some wearing t-shirts that said: “Restoring Honor,” or “100 percent Red-Blooded American.”
The interactions between the two groups of marchers were largely uneventful–outside of a few instances where they snapped pictures of one another other.
One “Restoring Honor” attendee, Mike Tuttle of Wisconsin, stood at the fringes of the sea of people in “Reclaim the Dream” march, shook hands and told marchers, “God bless you,” as they passed.
“I believe in being one with each other,” Tuttle said when asked about his actions. “God’s love compels me to love others as I would want to be loved.”
His wife, Janean, said Beck’s event wasn’t about politics, but a call to action with strong religious undertones.
“It wasn’t a political thing at all,” she said. “It was more like, ‘We need God back in our nation.'”
Others who went to Beck’s event said it rallied people to vote for a change in government during the upcoming elections.
“We were looking to do something in November–to change the way events are,” said Doug Williams, a New Jersey man who attended Beck’s rally with his wife. “It’s very important. It’s our country. We can’t have this massive spending that’s going on. It’s going to kill us.”
Many who went to the “Reclaim the Dream” rally were children or weren’t yet born when the original March on Washington occurred, and said they wanted to come Saturday to honor the civil rights movement.
“I wanted to feel that historical experience, of sacrifice, struggle and the movement continues,” said Angela Shelby, 52, a clinical psychology coordinator from New York City.
“Even in the present day, 2010, we’re still having the same issues,” she said. “From my perspective, it seems like the clock is rolling back. It seems like our entitlements are rolling back.”
El-Amin, who traveled by bus to the “Reclaim the Dream,” event, said more people should become involved in social activism. She said there have been myriad positive changes in U.S. society since King’s speech, but it’s led some to forget the struggles endured to achieve them.
“More of us should stand up for causes because a lot has changed for us good, but we tend to forget the struggles,” she said. “And I think what’s going on now, it’s making it more clear the struggles have not disappeared, and they can easily come back and send us back to where we were.”
El-Amin said she was disappointed that Glenn Beck scheduled his rally on the same day and at the same place as King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“It appears to me, from what I know so far, that his views are different from Dr. Martin Luther King,” she said.
But Rosie Eller, Gus’s sister, pointed out that King’s own niece, the anti-abortion activist Alveda King, not only sanctioned Beck’s event, but spoke there Saturday.
“Obviously, she was okay with it,” Eller said, sporting a pin with an acronym of Obama’s name that read, “Obama Big Ass Mistake America.”
“He (Beck) had his (Martin Luther King Jr.) family’s blessing,” Eller said. “I don’t have a problem with it.”
Eller said she admires Beck, but after the event, had heard some people badmouthing him. “He’s American, like us,” she said. “He knows what’s going on.”
Back at the “Reclaim the Dream” rally, Brandon Harris, president of Howard University’s Student Association, briefly addressed the crowds, reminding them of King’s speech and King’s ability to deal with issues honestly and openly.
But, Harris said, “Forty-seven years later, in spite of our technological and intellectual progressions, we have begun to socially regress as we usher in a new era, where the dream has been blurred by mis-educated and invalid motives.”