WASHINGTON - Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children gathered at the National Mall yesterday to celebrate family unity and racial and religious harmony in a Million Family March organized by Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam.
Spread from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, families listened as Farrakhan delivered a rambling three-hour speech that touched on a variety of issues but mostly sounded a theme of the importance of family.
"The family is the basic unit of civilization," Farrakhan told the crowd. "Everything must be done to care for the family unit."
Farrakhan - who has been denounced in the past for making racist and anti-Semitic statements - also told his listeners that he would "fight" for them.
"I will get you your freedom, justice and reparations," he said, referring to efforts to force the federal government to pay reparations to the descendants of slaves.
The crowd responded by chanting: "Farrakhan for president."
Speaking from the steps of the Capitol, Farrakhan urged the crowd to vote in the presidential election, though he did not endorse Vice President Al Gore or Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
"I hope that on Nov. 7 you will vote your conscience," said Farrakhan, who accused both candidates of paying little attention to the poor.
Farrakhan did not confine his remarks to religion and domestic issues. He likened young Palestinian rock-throwers battling Israeli security forces to democracy-seekers in Yugoslavia who helped achieve an end to Slobodan Milosevic's rule there.
Farrakhan also declared that the United States should lift its trade embargo against Cuba and stop selling arms to warring nations in Africa.
The Million Family March was held on the fifth anniversary of Farrakhan's Million Man March, and many participants said the turnout rivaled that for the 1995 march. The U.S. Park Service estimated that 400,000 people showed up for the Million Man March. It no longer issues crowd estimates for such events.
Yesterday's march was sponsored partly by the Unification Church, led by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who is widely known for holding mass weddings.
During his appearance yesterday, Farrakhan, along with several other ministers and at least one rabbi, led a mass "marriage blessing" for those in the crowd.
Lakendra and Aaron Stevens, who were married Friday during a civil ceremony in Houston, were among about 100 couples who renewed their wedding vows at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial yesterday. They said they came to Washington because Aaron Stevens, who attended the Million Man March, wanted to receive a personal blessing from Farrakhan.
"I thought this would be a good first stop to celebrate our union," he said.
Though the event was billed as multiracial, the crowd was mostly black. It descended early on the Mall, with thousands strolling past hundreds of vendors who set up shop along Constitution Avenue, hawking hot dogs, hamburgers, T-shirts and Ginseng Cola.
Many had come from distant cities in caravans or on chartered buses, arriving early yesterday and planning to leave hours after the march finished.
Melvin Moore of Baltimore took the day off from work and brought his 11-year-old son to Washington.
Moore, 47, said he felt Farrakhan was sincere and hoped people in the crowd would take the lessons of racial and family harmony home with them. He said he attended the Million Man March and felt the messages did not turn into action afterward.
"My hope is that all this effort will not diminish," he said.
Irene Cooper said Farrakhan had inspired her to return to her home in Brooklyn, N.Y., and help her needy neighbors.
"I'm going to try to reach out to my community," she said.
Farrakhan, 68, appeared to make an effort to tone down his rhetoric. He had once called Jews "bloodsuckers" and referred to them as organizers of the American slave trade. The Anti-Defamation League devotes a section of its Web site to tracking such Farrakhan statements.
In a interview Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," Farrakhan said, "When I talk to the Jews, I am talking to the segment of that quorum that holds my people in their grip."
Yesterday, Farrakhan said that people must transcend their divisive religious symbols and identities.
"I am a Christian, I am a Jew, I am a Muslim," he told the crowd.