Huge crowds at Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" freedom rally -- organized to give thanks to U.S. troops -- left Washington, D.C., on Saturday night pleased by the theme and the turnout – as thousands in attendance returned home carrying a message of making America better.
The rally -- which Beck and other organizers said they didn't want labeled as such because they wanted the event to remain non-political -- focused on healing the scars that the nation has suffered as a result of its disreputable moments in history.
"Let's be honest, if you look at history, America has been both terribly good, and terribly bad. It has been both, but we concentrate on the bad instead of learning from the bad and repairing the bad," said Beck, who has a radio show and is host of Fox News' "Glenn Beck."
"We have a choice today, to either let those scars crush us or redeem us," he said, speaking from the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his "I Have a Dream" speech 47 years earlier.
Beck turned the heads of the estimated crowd toward the opposite end of the Lincoln Memorial to make his point.
"If you look at the Washington Monument, you might notice its scars. ... a quarter of the way up it changes color. Look at it. Look at its scars. How did the scar get there? They stopped building it in the Civil War. And when the war was over, they began again. No one sees the scars of the Washington Memorial, the Washington Monument; we see what it stands for," he said.
Beck had tried to fight off accusations that the event -- which attracted many supporters of smaller government and lower taxes -- was meant to be political. He specifically asked that the audience not bring political signs, and for the most part people seemed to cooperate with the request.
Indeed, Tommy LaRussa, the St. Louis Cardinals manager who attended the event, said he didn't feel it was political in nature at all.
"It was beyond gratifying. I was inspired. There were a lot of things that inspired me. It was more religious, much more religious (than political)," he said afterward.
La Russa's team was playing the Washington Nationals Saturday night, and before the game, he said he had received complaints from the Cardinals' offices in St. Louis about his participation, which also falls on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's landfall in New Orleans.
Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, who was given an award at the rally for his off-field charitable work, said he thought its purpose was to show that Americans give back, something the Dominican Republic-born star does through organizations he's founded.
"God's given me some amazing talent, but I also think that it's my responsibility to give back to the community of St. Louis as well as to the Dominican Republic," Pujols said before Saturday's game.
"I know a lot of people were thinking it was going to be a political thing or something like that. What I heard was ... everybody praising God for the amazing things done in their life, family and the soldiers," Pujols said.
Complaints had been made about Beck's holding the rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the 47th anniversary of King's speech. Rev. Al Sharpton organized a counter-rally on the same day to commemorate the speech.
But Beck said he didn't realize when he scheduled the date and applied months ago for the permit -- which allowed more than 100,000 to attend -- that it fell on the same date as King's speech.
Beck long argued that the focus of the rally -- to pay tribute to America's military personnel and others "who embody our nation's founding principles of integrity, truth and honor" -- was never at odds with King's message.
"It was not my intention to select 8-28 because of the Martin Luther King tie," Beck said on his radio show in June. “It is the day he made that speech. I had no idea until I announced it.”
Beck, pacing back and forth on the marble steps of the memorial for the 16th president, said he was humbled by the size of the crowd, which stretched along the Washington Mall's long reflecting pool nearly all the way to the Washington Monument.
"Something beyond imagination is happening,'' he said. "America today begins to turn back to God.''
Beck also used the closing lines of then-candidate Obama's campaign stump speech of 2008.
"One man can change the world," he told the crowd. "That man or woman is you. You make the difference."
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate who has helped energize the Tea Party movement founded on the idea of less government intrusion, was greeted from many in the crowd by chants of "USA, USA, USA."
"It is so humbling to get to be here with you today, patriots. You who are motivated and engaged ... and knowing never to retreat," she said. Palin later said estimates of tens of thousands was a serious undercount.
Palin told the crowd she wasn't speaking as a politician. "No, something more, something much more. I've been asked to speak as the mother of a soldier and I am proud of that distinction. Say what you want to say about me, but I raised a combat vet and you can't take that away from me." It was a reference to her son, Track, 20, who served a yearlong deployment in Iraq.
Across the National Mall, Sharpton and others protested, calling the demonstration an anti-government rally advocating states' rights. And he said that the event goes against the message in King's speech, in which the civil rights leader appealed to the federal government to ensure equality.
"The structural breakdown of a strong national government, which is what they're calling for, is something that does not serve the interests of the nation and it's something that Dr. King and others fought against," he said.
"It is ironic to me that they come on the day of a speech where Dr. King appealed for a strong government to protect civil rights and they're going to the site of Abraham Lincoln who saved the union against the state rebellion," he said.