Political ideals, civil rights will crowd the National Mall

WASHINGTON -- In one corner of the National Mall, the son of Rev. Martin Luther King will help lead a rally Saturday marking the 47th anniversary of his father's historic March on Washington.

In another part of the Mall, at the Lincoln Memorial where King gave his iconic "I Have A Dream" speech in 1963, the civil rights leader's right-leaning niece and fellow Atlantan Alveda King will speak at a "Restoring Honor" rally led by conservative talk show host Glenn Beck.

In between will be people like Michael Williams, a 24-year-old Domino's Pizza manager from Marietta.

"We’re living in historic times,” Williams said during a 13-hour bus ride from Atlanta to attend the Glenn Beck rally. “People are waking up. We call it getting off the couch.”

In what is expected to be one of the biggest public gatherings to fill the National Mall in recent history -- the National Park Service has approved a permit that has Beck event organizers calling for a crowd of 300,000 -- people from every corner of the country will overrun Washington on Saturday in a contemporaneous convergence of both liberal and conservative ideals.

The dichotomy of the appearances by the two Kings -- Martin Luther King III at Rev. Al Sharpton's "Reclaim the Dream" rally and Alveda King at Beck's "Restoring Honor" event -- illustrates not just the division of protesters descending on Washington Saturday, but of the country as a whole in these divisive political times, participants say.

"We live in America and constitutional freedom of speech is still here … so we all have the right to express our views," Alveda King said in an interview.

Just like today with the dueling Beck-Sharpton rallies, there was plenty of controversy when her uncle orchestrated the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, Alveda King recalled.

"We will have people who are supporting us and we will have critics," King, 60, said. "But this is America so that's not surprising."

What led many to Washington to participate in Fox News host Glenn Beck's rally, which also will feature Sarah Palin, was a sense of need to return to the values of an American past.

Atlanta-area resident Erma Hawn, 66, said she wanted to get back to the standards she adhered to as a child attending a three-room school house in Tennessee, where the teacher had a Bible on the desk and the kids recited the Pledge of Allegiance every morning.

“If we don’t bring back our values, we will lose our grandchildren,” Hawn said.

But others question what sort of America the conservative supporters of Beck and the Tea Party movement -- the latter offering a huge presence at the rallies Saturday -- want to recover.

"When they talk about reclaiming their country, that means taking it from somebody else," said Leisa Stafford, 37, president of the Atlanta chapter of the National Action Network, the Sharpton group that organized the "Reclaim the Dream" rally.

Stafford and 200 other Atlanta-area residents were expected to travel from Atlanta to Washington together to attend the Sharpton rally, using the same I-95 corridor as several hundred other Atlantans in buses headed for the Beck rally.

For his part, Beck has said he wants his rally to be unifying, not divisive. He says the controversial idea of holding it on the 47th anniversary of the King speech, at the same location where King appeared, was completely unintentional and unintended, although he also attributes it to "divine intervention."

"It's not the date; it's the message," Beck said on his Fox News show Thursday night. A spokesman for the television host declined to make him available for comment for this story.

On the air, Beck has asked attendees not to bring signs or come in anger, but to come in a peaceful spirit akin to the one espoused by King.

"Don't bring your signs," he said on TV. "Bring your hearts ... bring your open minds."

Perhaps most controversially, Beck has said his rally will "reclaim the civil rights movement," suggesting that others haven't done enough to protect individual freedoms.

That comment incensed civil rights movement leaders, who think Beck has confused a social issue with politics.

"It's an affront to what the civil rights movement stood for," U.S. Rep. John Lewis said of Beck's gathering. The Atlanta Democrat and civil right rights icon is the last surviving speaker who appeared with King at the 1963 March on Washington.

Lewis said King and the civil rights movement stood for unity. Despite Beck's claims to the contrary, Lewis said the talk show host is "a very divisive force."

"It's just my hope that whatever they say and do will be with a sense of peace and love and not with anger and frustration and hatred toward anyone," Lewis said.

Sharpton, like Lewis and others, said he didn't have a problem with Beck's event.

"They have the right to rally," Sharpton said at a Friday news conference. "But what they don’t have the right to do is distort what Dr. King's dream was about."

Sharpton pointed out that Beck and Tea Party supporters want less government in their lives and in society. When King spoke in Washington, he was seeking to get more government involvement in desegregating the South.

Claudia Weiss, 58, of Acworth, passed the time on a bus ride from Atlanta by reading a book about George Whitefield, a minister during the Great Awakening religious movement of the 18th Century. She admired his message of “coming back to God and country.”

She dismissed critics of this conservative movement who say it has racist overtones.

“They say that to shut people down,” Weiss said. “It’s not really there.”

Williams, the Marietta pizza store manager, said the Beck rally is in no way intended to distort King's message.

Instead, said the Georgia Tea Party board member, it's the opposite.

"It's an attempt to honor what Martin Luther King accomplished," he said.