47 years to the day after participating in the great civil rights march on Washington, I returned to the same space for Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally. In 1963, a crowd of roughly 200,000 filled the “reflecting pool” area below the Lincoln Memorial. Today’s crowd packed that area as well as adjacent areas on all three sides. In fact, the throng extended most of the way to the Washington Monument, where the 1963 march began. To me, it looked like there were at least three times as many people at this rally.
The crowd was extraordinarily courteous and polite. I saw virtually no signs except on the way the gathering. Once at the grounds of the rally, I saw only American flags, a few “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, and one Israeli flag. There were plenty of conservative t-shirts, of course. However, in the hour to hour-and-a-half I spent walking the crowd, the only shirts I saw that I thought exceeded the limits of good taste were two that featured President Obama with a Hitler-style mustache.
The speakers referred pretty frequently to Martin Luther King and his 1963 speech. In addition, Dr. King’s niece addressed the crowd. The crowd responded enthusiastically to each such reference and to the niece. It was, though, an almost entirely white crowd. With all of my walking, I saw only around two dozen African-Americans. One had a small poster that said “do I look racist?” Another was politely arguing with a few equally polite people about the Grand Zero Mosque (the black favored its construction and thought the opposition was anti-Islamic).
The speeches were not about politics, at least not in the usual sense. Instead, they were mostly about concepts — honor, courage, charity, etc. — and the need for a “national revival” centering around these virtues. The speakers did not praise or denounce specific policies or politicians. When they weren’t praising the traditional virtues or private non-political figures who exemplify them, the speakers praised God and the U.S. military.
I didn’t stay to the end and at times, as I walked the grounds, I couldn’t hear the speakers clearly. That said, I did not hear any speaker mention Obama or a contemporary legislative or foreign policy issue. The theme, to the extent there was a political one, consisted of the very general view that American should be “restored” rather than “transformed.” Beck’s hope seemed to be to inspire members of the crowd to help spark such a restoration.
Sarah Palin spoke early in the event. She drew the most enthusiastic applause I heard all day, including Beck’s.
By agreement with Beck, Palin spoke in her role as the mother of a soldier about the military. She honored three military heroes in very moving terms. One of them had been at the “Hanoi Hilton.” Palin’s gracious reference, in that connection, to John McCain drew only a smattering of tepid applause (at least where I was at the time).
In my view, Beck, his supporters, and the rest of the crowd deserve great credit for the positive tone of the event. This, I’m sure, was angry crowd, as it has every right to be. But it did not appear at all to be a hate-filled one. And it applauded the accomplishments of the civil rights movement as vigorously as it applauded America’s other great triumphs.
I may not agree with all of the Beck/Tea Pary movement’s positions, and certainly not with all aspects of the Tea Party’s political strategy. But I agree with its values and admire its character and resolve. The politeness of the crowd did not mask its determination.
JOHN adds a photo. The crowd was obviously large:
PAUL adds: What you don’t see in this picture is the crowd that the extended most of the way to the Washington Monument (but was not packed tightly the way the crowd in front of the Lincoln Memorial was).
You do get a sense from this picture of how tightly packed that crowd was. In 1963, my father and I moved easily through the crowd towards the back when I insisted we get something to drink. And we moved fairly easily back towards the front when it was Martin Luther King’s turn to speak.
Today, I could walk the crowd only slowly and often with difficulty.
Whatever the crowd size was on August 28, 1963, I don’t see how it could have been less than twice that size today, and I’d estimate it at considerably more than that.
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