In an atmosphere of joyous fellowship, thousands of men and women — and their children — gathered amid the nation’s monuments today to celebrate racial and religious unity and the central role of the family in American life.
Called by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan on the fifth anniversary of his Million Man March, people of all races and religions spread out on blankets and lawn chairs in the National Mall and laughed, clapped and shouted as speakers urged them to improve their family lives.
“The family is the basic unit of civilization so everything must be done to take care of the family unit,” Farrakhan said during his speech of more than two hours.
He, along with rabbis and ministers of other faiths, then presided over a mass “sacred marriage blessing” reminiscent of the mass weddings conducted by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, whose Unification Church was a major sponsor of the march. “There will be many trials, many tribulations, but you must never think to back out of the word you give to God and to each other,” Farrakhan told the already married couples lined up in the crowd, on the U.S. Capitol stage and at the Lincoln Memorial.
The assemblage appeared to be considerably smaller than the Million Man March, but it was expected to be the largest gathering of black people since that 1995 event. The National Park Service said the Million Man March brought an estimated 400,000 people to Washington, but Farrakhan insisted it drew more than 1 million.
The park service stopped making crowd estimates after the 1995 event and the controversy over its size. But several speakers today said they thought there were at least a million people spread out between the Capitol, the Ellipse behind the White House, the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. Large television screens were scattered throughout the area so participants could see the speeches.
Ben Muhammad, the Million Family March’s national director, said at least 3 million people showed up for the day’s events. “It was larger than the Million Man March,” he said. “If we had 2 million at the Million Man March, we had a little over 3 million here today.”
However, officials at Washington’s subway system said at mid-afternoon that the number of riders was only a little higher than normal. The number of riders for the Million Man March was the second-highest in the subway system’s history.
Mutual Respect Farrakhan, controversial for his anti-white and anti-Semitic proclamations, has dropped that language and softened his Afrocentric message. In a wide-ranging speech that touched on everything from the Middle East strife to the presidential race to poverty and sexism, the Nation of Islam leader continually came back to promoting unity between the races and religions.
“It’s the mutual respect between people and the mutual love between people that will save humanity,” Farrakhan said.
Nevertheless, the crowd was largely black. Some Asian-American and white families could be seen here and there, many carrying symbols of the Unification Church.
Greg Odlin, a white minister, brought his wife and four children on a bus from Portland, Maine. “I came to show America how important the family is to God and how important God is to family happiness,” said the 45-year-old Odlin, whose church is affiliated with the Unification Church. “I came down to fellowship with my brothers and show there’s a lot of Americans serious about the family.”
“I’m a white brother,” said the Rev. Michael Jenkins of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification. “We must repent for what we did to our African-American brothers. In the name of God, I repent. We must repent for what we did to our native American brothers. I repent.”
The overarching purpose of today’s event was to demonstrate that “people of God can come together, despite our diversity, for the noblest of causes, the family,” said Minister Rashul Muhammad, son of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad.
Many Themes, Common Purpose
Many speakers hit their usual themes.
“If you love your family, you protect your family,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has long criticized the New York City police for the shooting death of African immigrant Amadou Diallo. “Protecting your family is not letting one unarmed member get shot 41 times and walking away without saying anything.” The unarmed Diallo was hit by 19 of the shots.
Others spoke on improving family life. Comedian-activist Dick Gregory urged parents to live cleaner, healthier lives so their children would have a positive example to follow. “I’m so sick of people saying, ‘What’s wrong with the youth of today?“‘ he said. “What’s wrong with the children? It’s you old folks.”
Ayanna Muhammad, 11, spoke for the preservation of families. “Broken homes make children sad,” she said.
Farrakhan also called on supporters to donate money to a Million Family March economic development fund, which he said would go toward opening businesses in poor neighborhoods. Organizers also collected money to pay off the mortgage for the National Council of Negro Women building on Pennsylvania Avenue, which the Rev. Willie Wilson of the Union Temple Baptist Church called the only black-owned building in the nation’s “corridor of power.”