Beliefnet

WASHINGTON, Oct. 16 (AP)--From the U.S. Capitol to the Washington Monument and beyond, thousands of families of all colors assembled in Washington Monday at the summons of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan to celebrate the strength and diversity of the American family.

On the fifth anniversary of the Million Man March--said to be the largest gathering of black people in a Washington demonstration--the crowds came peacefully, and not to petition the government but to exult in their numbers.

The event--dubbed the Million Family March--was expected to be the largest gathering of black people since the 1995 march, which the National Park Service said drew between 400,000 and 800,000 people, but which Farrakhan said drew 2 million.

Organizers refused to say how many people they expected Monday, but they told city officials to prepare for more than 1 million.

The park service has stopped making crowd estimates since the 1995 event and its controversy over the size.

The overarching purpose of Monday'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.

Speakers pushed for people to improve different areas of their lives. 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.

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.''

``Take out some money so we can pay for our building,'' said Wilson, who said the building will be named after 88-year-old council president-emeritus Dorothy Height after it's paid for.

Most of the marchers were between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, with only a few hundred at the alternate stages at the Lincoln Memorial and the Ellipse behind the White House.

From the Capitol steps, one could see thousands of people spread out on blankets or propped-up lawn chairs or standing shoulder to shoulder. As the sun broke through the clouds, the mood was festive. Many sang, ``Lift Every Voice and Sing.'' On stages scattered along the Mall, speakers extolled the virtues of the family life.

``I think this is a once-in-a-lifetime blessing,'' said Darryl Tucker, 40, a black man who attended the original Million Man March alone but this time brought his wife and three children on the all-night car trip from Detroit. ``I think the spirit that comes from this will help families around the world come closer and be better people.''

With a live Webcast, large Jumbotron screens and speakers and a multimedia display, march organizers say Monday's event would have an international impact.

``We stand here a million strong but we're affecting billions around the world,'' said Benjamin Muhammad, the Million Family March's national director.

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, who is affiliated with the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. ``I came down to fellowship with my brothers and show there's a lot of Americans serious about the family.''

The march began around dawn with Muslim prayers and religious speakers calling for unity and family renewal.

``We need to realize that we are one,'' said Archbishop George Stallings of the Imani Temple of Washington, part of the independent African-American Catholic Congregation. ``Before there was faith, there was family.''

March supporters said they hoped to mobilize backing for a get-out-the-vote campaign, as well as for what organizers described as a family-oriented public policy agenda.

A 156-page ``National Agenda'' addresses a raft of issues including welfare and Social Security reform, substance abuse prevention, education and overhaul of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

The gatherings at the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Ellipse and the Lincoln Memorial were featuring speakers including the Rev. Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King III and Farrakhan, whose afternoon address was to close the event.

Farrakhan had hinted that he would endorse a presidential nominee at the march, but he said Sunday on NBC's ``Meet the Press'' that none of the candidates responded to his request to review the march's agenda. ``So it would be difficult for us to endorse a candidate that won't even speak to the agenda that we've put before them,'' he said.

Singers Stevie Wonder, Macy Gray and Regina Bell were lined up to perform for the crowd, and Farrakhan was to deliver a ``sacred wedding blessing'' to 10,000 couples.

Farrakhan said he knew people would question his alliance with Moon, whose Unification Church is a major sponsor of the march, along with some other religious groups.

But ``we need today divine composers,'' Farrakhan, a musician, said Saturday. ``We need today someone who can write the score to unite the human family so we can be beautiful as the music that we hear instead of like the ugliness in the world.''

``If music can make us one, why should the word of God make us many?''

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