Thousands of American families gathered on the Mall yesterday in an outpouring of dedication to the values of faith and family.
The observance, on a bright and balmy October afternoon, took on a festive air. Children some in full suits but most in casual outfits lined up for face painting, or drew pictures in a day care tent while their parents listened to the speeches.
The crowd, which looked somewhat smaller than the 300,000 who gathered for the Million Man March five years ago, included families of all races and religious faiths but was overwhelmingly black and included many Muslims.
“The family is the basic unit of civilization,” Louis Farrakhan, minister of the Nation of Islam who called the Million Family March, told them in a speech that stretched across two hours at the U.S. Capitol. “God created us into tribes and families so that we may know one another. [But] what do we know except the worst of each other?”
Mr. Farrakhan, who had built a reputation for fiery denunciation of Jews and other whites, tempered his rhetoric yesterday, calling for people of all religions and races to share in the same humanity.
“I am a Christian,” he said. “I am a Jew. I am a Muslim… . I am all of that and then some because I refuse to let things limit me as to who I really am and you should not allow that either.”
However, he did not take back any of his past rhetoric, nor did he offer an apology for any of the things he had said in the past his description of Judaism as “a gutter religion” (his supporters insist he had said “dirty religion” and not “gutter religion”) and of whites as “subhuman.”
Yesterday he said he had “had to preach blackness” in hard times for minorities but now he urges “respect” between faiths and races. He said he wants to encourage stable families, good incomes and education.
“Now we say this is a multiracial, multicultural society,” he said. “It’s not your race, it’s not your color, it’s not your creed [that is most important]… . It’s our duty to God and our righteous conduct.”
Mr. Farrakhan had been urged to call for a moment of silence in memory of the U.S. sailors who died in a terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, but he merely included them in a litany of veterans of all wars who had played “a significant role in this nation.” Responsibility for the blast that killed the Americans has been claimed by Hezbollah, the Palestinian terrorist organization. Mr. Farrakhan has in the past praised Hezbollah terrorists as “freedom fighters.”
Though Mr. Farrakhan confined his remarks mostly to the family theme of the day, he condemned the U.S. embargo on Cuba, arms sales to African governments and promised to work for “reparations,” or payments to black descendants of American slaves. Other speakers demanded “immediate amnesty” for illegal Hispanic immigrants, and Daniel Ortega, the Communist Sandinista former president of Nicaragua, urged “respect” for human rights, and a representative of the grand mufti, or chief Islamic cleric, of Syria called the street fighting by the Palestinians in Gaza a “war of liberation” by the Arabs.
In one of the most partisan speeches of the day, the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York City mocked the devotion of conservatives to families. “The right-wing loves family values, but they don’t love our families,” he said. “Today, we’re going to talk about the real family values.”
Though there were no official estimates of the size of the crowd, it was clear that it fell far short of a million families. The U.S. Park Police adopted a policy of no estimates after Mr. Farrakhan challenged its official count of 300,000 at the Million Man March, claiming that the 1995 crowd exceeded a million.
Metro spokeswoman Leona Agouridis said the transit agency’s ridership was likely 10 percent to 15 percent higher than a normal weekday, which could make it one of the 10 highest days for ridership in Metro history. Metro carried 565,000 persons by 6 last night, though final estimates will not be available until today. Normal weekday ridership is about 580,000 to 600,000 persons.
Downtown traffic during the daylong event was undisturbed by the crowds, D.C. police said.
Throngs of families, including children, stretched from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, and huge television screens displayed speakers on different stages. They heard Mr. Farrakhan preach that racial stereotypes of white supremacy and black inferiority “poisoned the bloodstream of religion,” and he urged a “cleansing” of racial hatred and prejudice everywhere they are found. At the conclusion of his remarks, he offered a blessing of 10,000 married couples, many of them interracial, who renewed their vows at yesterday’s march.
In the half-hour ceremony, at which clergy from several faiths gave prayers and blessings, Mr. Farrakhan borrowed from the practice of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church and a supporter of the march, by calling on the couples to be “true parents” with true families. He invited two daughters of Malcolm X and three Hassidic rabbis to the podium.
Malcolm X, who was slain in 1965 by Muslim gunmen after he had worked to move the so-called “black Muslims” toward orthodox Islam, was at that time a rival of Mr. Farrakhan. Mr. Farrakhan has expressed “regret” for creating the atmosphere in which Malcolm X was slain.
He urged support for candidates who endorse proposals outlined in the march’s “national agenda”: ending political and economic discrimination, curing the nation’s drug problem and paying reparations to descendants of slaves. Though encouraging blacks to vote, Mr. Farrakhan did not endorse either Vice President Al Gore or Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, likening them to “a choice between Beelzebub and the devil.”
But, advocating more black chairmanships in Congress, he suggested that minority-race voters would get more from Democrats.
In a similar appeal, Martin Luther King III, son of the slain civil rights leader and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said racial profiling by police was a hinge issue in the Nov. 7 presidential election. “One candidate has made his No. 1 initiative to outlaw racial profiling,” he said, referring to Mr. Gore’s statement in the second presidential debate. “The other candidate has been silent.”
Former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, in brief remarks, said “the residents of D.C. are held in political hostage by the federal government” because they don’t have voting representation in Congress, and because the District’s budget must be approved by Congress.
Virginia Williams, mother of D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, welcomed the crowd with a verse of “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” She applauded the day’s “focus on the family.”
Mr. Williams was out of town, said Carolyn Graham, deputy mayor for families and children. She said Mr. Farrakhan’s vision of family unity “comports with the mayor and his belief in a strong community that can only be had with strong families.”
Gertraud Mesbah left Manhattan with her daughter Sara, 9, at 1 a.m. yesterday to arrive in the District at 5 a.m. for the march. Sitting on a blanket with Sara and her friend Jessica, 10, Mrs. Mesbah said she hopes the march strengthens families that have problems.
“There may be some people who may have doubts about their families, but they can go home with more energy and strength from the gathering,” said Mrs. Mesbah. She is a native of Austria, and a member of the Unification Church, which helped organize the event. Said she: “There’s nothing more sad than when you start a family, have kids and then it breaks down.”
Gerald Mizejewski and Derek Simmonsen contributed to this report.