WASHINGTON - Stirred by patriotism, faith and the deeply-held conviction that the United States has lost its way, tens of thousands rallied Saturday at the Lincoln Memorial for an event organized by conservative commentator Glenn Beck.
Beck and speakers such as Sarah Palin, joined by a multicultural slate of religious leaders and veterans, called fervently on followers who packed the Mall, asking them to return to traditional values.
"America today begins to turn back to God," Beck told the roaring crowd in a sermon-like speech that touched on Moses, Native Americans and the religious dissidents who settled the country. "For too long this country has wandered in darkness . . . We once again say may God bless America, may it be one nation, under God, in Christ's name, amen."
Thousands from a different end of the political spectrum also marched in the Capitol later in the day to commemorate the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech - a moment the Rev. Al Sharpton and some civil rights leaders said they felt had been co-opted by the Beck event, held on the same steps where King spoke in 1963.
"On these grounds where we are so honored to stand today, we feel the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King," Palin, the former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate told the Beck rally, adding she spoke in her role as "the mother of a soldier."
Organizers of the Beck rally had been accused of insensitivity in selecting the MLK anniversary - a date they in turn described as a coincidence, though appropriate given their message of unity. Those at the King rally were largely African-American. The Beck rally drew a predominantly white crowd, though a number of speakers and performers were black.
Billed as an apolitical day to honor U.S. troops and chart a return to the nation's founding principles, the event drew throngs of people, many energized by the tea party movement.
At least 200 supporters from Long Island attended the event, according to organizers of the Suffolk 9-12 Project, an offshoot of a movement Beck launched last year to rally citizens around family, religious faith and loyalty to the Constitution.
Many who attended said they came to feel fellowship with thousands of like-minded people and to show their support for members of the military. "I didn't come here to express hate for my government, but to express love for one nation under God," said Al Borrelli of Sound Beach, visibly moved by the event.
Still, a number aired frustrations with the Obama administration and political leaders in both major parties. They said they yearned for a return to personal responsibility and more limited government.
"When people say what they say, they have to mean what they say and follow through," said Kevin McManus, 44, a Suffolk 9-12 organizer from Setauket, who attended with son Liam, 17. "We want to bring that back into Washington, bring that home."
As the Beck event wound down, Sharpton supporters gathered nearby at the future site of the King Memorial, awaiting marchers who walked the five miles from the city's Dunbar High School. Chanting and carrying signs emblazoned with King's image, they shouted their support for President Barack Obama. At times verbal spats broke out between lingering people in tea party shirts and Sharpton's group.
Still, Debbie Sawyer, 52, of Suffolk, Va., said she didn't resent the Beck followers massed at the Lincoln Memorial. King's message, she said, was big enough to share. "If we don't embrace one another, we're going to break this country down internally," Sawyer said. "We have to come together sooner or later."