WASHINGTON – Barbara Hovermill boarded one of 12 buses from Hagerstown, determined to be part of the crowd of tens of thousands that rallied Saturday at the Lincoln Memorial at an event organized by conservative commentator Glenn Beck on the 47th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.
"We need to have government hear us," said Hovermill, a 68-year-old retired retail worker from Williamsport whose shirt was adorned with buttons and stickers for her favored candidates in Maryland — including gubernatorial candidate Brian Murphy and U.S. Senate candidate Jim Rutledge, both Republicans.
"No matter what we do — call them, write them — these politicians are not listening. Slowly but surely they're chipping away at our Constitution."
The gathering, dubbed "Restoring Honor," was billed as a nonpolitical event, but featured former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin as a speaker and largely attracted Beck's core audience of conservatives and tea party activists, who voiced discontent with such issues as health care reform and the nation's massive debt. Attendees said they were generally unhappy with all incumbents but largely focused their ire on President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress.
"Something that is beyond man is happening," said Beck, speaking from the steps of the memorial before a sea of mostly white supporters in an address heavy with religious and patriotic overtones. "America today begins to turn back to God. For too long, this country has wandered in darkness. Today we are going to concentrate on the good things in America. The things that we've accomplished and the things we can do tomorrow."
Civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton led a dueling event across town in protest called "Reclaim the Dream," marching from a Washington high school to the planned site of the King memorial on the National Mall. Sharpton said Beck was trying to "hijack" the civil rights movement by holding his event on the anniversary and at the same spot as King's iconic address.
Beck, who hosts a program on Fox News, has said he was unaware of the date's significance when he planned the rally. In Anne Arundel County, hundreds of people attended an event commemorating the anniversary at the community college's King memorial statue.
On the National Mall, Palin called the crowd "patriots" in her address, in which she said she was speaking "not as a politician," but as the mother of a veteran. Palin waded into Maryland politics recently with an endorsement of Murphy.
"You are motivated and engaged and concerned and knowing to never retreat," Palin said. "We must not fundamentally transform America like some would want. We must restore America and restore her honor."
Tea party groups across Maryland mobilized their followers, organizing caravans of buses from many corners of the state. While several attendees, wearing a mix of patriotic garb and T-shirts with political jabs at Obama — said they held no loyalty to either the Democrats or the Republicans, they also said they worried about tax increases at the state and local levels and hoped to unseat incumbents in the November elections.
Maureen Harper, a retired public school teacher from Cambridge, said she fears a tax increase if Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley is re-elected, but is undecided between Murphy and Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.; she worries that Ehrlich is not conservative enough.
"Both parties give in to their principles," said Harper, 62. "Sometimes you sit home and you watch the news, and look at your paycheck and your bills, and you think, 'Oh my God, how am I gonna pay for this?' And then you go to this rally and you say, 'Oh my, all these other people are concerned about the same things.' I like that people are finally speaking up and saying, 'I've had enough of this.'"
Bob Nigh, a retired aluminum plant worker from Hagerstown, said he'll feel the movement has been successful when he sees incumbents voted out. Nigh said he's still mulling his vote for governor, deciding between Ehrlich and Murphy. The former Democrat said he's certain he won't be voting for O'Malley.
"Get rid of the incumbents — both sides," said Nigh, 63. "Get 'em out."
Terry Kazmier, the owner of several spas and salons where she lives in Johnson City, Tenn., said she felt compelled to attend the rally to deconstruct stereotypes about the tea party and other conservative activists.
"We're just kind of over the perception that the tea party people are crazy people — we're backwoods," said Kazmier, 41, who is black and attended with her husband and 6-year-old son. "My husband's a physician. We're normal people. We're just unhappy with Washington."
Tim Irving, a heating and air conditioning mechanic from Calvert County who attended the rally as part of a tea party group, said he was offended that there's a perception that the group is not inclusive.
"It's not a Democratic thing," said Irving, 47. "It's not a Republican thing. It's not a black thing. It's not a white thing. It's an American thing. It's about bringing the fundamental values of the Constitution back — for the people to have a say."