Beck Rally More Church Picnic Than Tea Party Protest

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Forty-seven years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. headlined the March on Washington. Saturday brought another big demonstration in front of the Lincoln Memorial, this one led by conservative commentator Glenn Beck. And that spurred a counter-rally from Al Sharpton. Guest host Audie Cornish talks with NPR's Andrea Seabrook, who was at the Beck rally.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

In the nation's capitol today, tens of thousands of people gathered at the foot the Lincoln Memorial. Their primary purpose was not to commemorate the event that happened on those steps 47 years ago today, the march on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech. In a few minutes, we'll revisit that historic day.

But today's rally was about Restoring Honor. That's the title that conservative commentator Glenn Beck gave the gathering. And he insisted it was apolitical. Critics scoffed, citing its promotion through Tea Party networks and a marquee speech by Republican Sarah Palin.

But for those who turned out, the mission was clear...

Ms. CHERIE NEWELL: Because I love my country and I love the Lord, and that's why we are here.

Ms. KAREN HOBSON: If we're an honorable people, then we will have an honorable nation. And I think honor is missing, especially from some of our politicians.

Mr. JOE ALEC: As a Christian nation, we were born on the foundation of giving, of helpfulness and we don't have that anymore.

Mr. KEITH THOMAS: They want to take God out of everything, out of schools, out of this and that. And people don't have as much personal responsibility anymore. You know, we want to put that back in the whole country and especially in our government.

CORNISH: That was Keith Thomas of Syracuse, New York. And before that, Cherie Newell of Valparaiso, Indiana; Karen Hobson from Illinois and Joe Alec of Cinnaminson, New Jersey.

We turn now to NPR's Andrea Seabrook, who spent most of the day on the Mall.

Hi, Andrea.


CORNISH: Andrea, you've been covering town hall protests and Tea Party events all over the country for the last year. So tell me, how did this one compare?

SEABROOK: Audie, it was really different. It felt like a different kind of rally. For one thing, they were very careful not to call it a protest or a demonstration. It was a rally for something rather than a protest of. And, you know, largely what it felt like was kind of a church picnic. People were sitting around under trees and just listening and clapping. And there wasn't any hint of the kind of anger or vitriol that you sometimes feel at more serious protests.

CORNISH: And the name of the rally was Restoring Honor. What did people say that that meant to them?

SEABROOK: Most people said it was - they were talking about their Christian values. This is a very religious rally, and ended up being. Beck himself calls himself a Christian faith-based patriot. And it seems like most of the people there were there because they wanted to honor the beliefs, the deep-seated belief that later then have something to do with their politics.

CORNISH: But, Andrea, you know, the other major headliner was Sarah Palin, a major political conservative. And even though everyone was saying this wasn't about politics, what did Beck and Palin have to say?

SEABROOK: Yeah, there were a couple of instances of sort of the lady duck protests too much in the march today. I mean, clearly, there are politics at play here, though Glenn Beck would rather talk about the military than he would about politics. Listen to this clip from him.

Mr. GLENN BECK (Conservative Commentator): We have very little trust in most of our institutions, but there is one thing that still is 15 points higher at the top of the list on things that America trusts: Our military.

SEABROOK: Yeah, he says that a lot of the honor that he's talking about, as people went back to the values the military is based on. Sarah Palin is the one who, in all of the people that spoke today, got closest to the sort of political message that this rally had at its underpinnings. Let's listen to her.

Ms. SARAH PALIN (Author, "Going Rouge"): We must not fundamentally transform America as some would want. We must restore America and restore her honor.

SEABROOK: Right. She's against fundamentally changing America.

CORNISH: Right, which is...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: Right. That's (unintelligible). You know, you kind of have to dig around for that a little bit.

SEABROOK: Now there was also a smaller sort of counter-rally dubbed the Reclaiming the Dream march, and that was led by Reverend Al Sharpton. I want to play a voice from that march.

Ms. ALFREDA POWERS: I'm Alfreda Powers and I'm from Philadelphia. I'm here because I was here in 1963 too. And it was a wonderful thing. Now the Tea Party thing, I'm sorry, I'm against it because they want to take back what we have gained.

CORNISH: Andrea, originally, Glenn Beck said that this rally wasn't about Dr. King, but he really did seem to embrace the image on stage today.

SEABROOK: And, in fact, Glenn Beck said that it was divine providence that his march ended up - his rally ended up on the same day as the march on Washington 47 years later. But he did end up, as you're saying, embracing it. He had this big presentation with video and music. He had Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s niece on stage talking about the speech.

And he drew some parallels about religion and politics. But, that said, Glenn Beck also has something to prove here. He has called President Obama a racist, saying that Obama has problems with white people. Tea Party activists have also been - come under criticism for shouting racial epithets at black people. And Glenn Beck has something to gain or prove, in a way, by embracing the Martin Luther King moment so clearly.

CORNISH: NPR's Andrea Seabrook just back from the Mall in Washington today.

Thanks so much, Andrea.

SEABROOK: Thanks, Audie.

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