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Progress takes Strides in DC

Stephon Johnson | 4/12/2011, 5:25 p.m.

Thousands of people gathered last Saturday to celebrate the enduring legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the historic 1963 March on Washington.

Organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton and the National Action Network, the "Reclaim the Dream" rally commemorated the 47th anniversary of the landmark civil rights gathering and celebrated the impending memorial to Dr. King.

Members of various churches and labor unions were joined by politicians and the NAACP at the rally.

"Somebody said, 'Why are y'all marching? Why are y'all rallying?'" said Sharpton during the rally. "They called us troublemakers, but now the folks that used to criticize us for marching are having a march themselves."

Sharpton was referring to Glenn Beck, the conservative, Mormon talk show host who has made a name for himself on FOX television and who organized his own event on the Washington Mall. Beck's event attracted a large crowd after being heavily promoted on various conservative FOX television programs.

The two events were only blocks away from each other. Rev. Sharpton's event started at Dunbar High School and attendees marched to the location of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial site, which is very close to the Lincoln Memorial.

"We have come because the dream has not been achieved," said Sharpton. "We still have a long way to go."

Crowd estimates for the Sharpton rally were about 10,000-15,000. The Beck rally, supported by extensive coverage on the FOX platform, managed to bring in over 80,000, according to an estimate from a company hired by CBS News. But neither event was on the scale of the 1963 March on Washington or the 1995 Million Man March, both of which had hundreds of thousands of people in attendance.

Sharpton and the National Action Network were not trying to bring out comparable numbers to those historic events, though Beck and his followers were trying to bring out big numbers to show the strength of their Tea Party-supported movement.

Part religious revival movement, part political rally, the purpose behind the Beck rally was unclear. "We are not sure what the message of the Beck rally is, since he told them to leave their signs at home," said Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP. However, the purpose of the "Reclaim the Dream" rally was clear. "We have to revitalize jobs and schools and reclaim Dr. King's dream."

And there were those who were angered by Beck and his followers for choosing to do their conservative rally on the exact day that the March on Washington occurred in 1963.

"Shame on them," said Jaime Contreras, president of SEIU-32BJ, at the rally. "We still have a dream. We are here to let those folks on the Mall know that they don't represent the dream. They sure as hell don't represent me. They represent hatemongering and angry white people."

Beck's rally audience was, in fact, overwhelmingly white.

Although he evoked Dr. King's name prior to the "Restoring Honor" rally, Beck himself, in an interview with fellow FOX News employee Chris Wallace, admitted that he didn't agree with much of what Dr. King said during the 1963 March on Washington, and that Black people don't own the legacy of Martin Luther King. Beck said his goal was to reclaim the Civil Rights Movements from politics and hand it back to faith.

Those, however, who sided with Dr. King and what he stood for could be found with Sharpton expressing their distaste for Beck's rally and all it stood for.

"Don't let anyone tell you that they have the right to take their country back. It's our country, too," said Avis Jones-DeWeever, executive director of the National Council of Negro Women. "We will reclaim the dream. It was ours from the beginning."

"It's alright with me that they're at the Mall," said Rev. W. Franklin Richardson, president of Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, N.Y. "Because we are at the White House."

Despite Obama's White House victory, Sharpton understands that conservative politicians, supporters and strategists are banking on low attendance numbers for this year's midterm elections.

"They think we showed up in '08 and they're betting on us not to show up now," Sharpton said. "But we know how to sucker punch you. We've just begun to fight and we're not going to let you turn back the clock."