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Glenn Beck addresses thousands at Saturday's rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. ((Alex Brandon/Associated Press))

Tens of thousands of people gathered Saturday at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to listen to conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin give speeches with honour as the main theme.

But some civil rights leaders were critical of the rally because it was scheduled on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s I Have a Dreamspeech.

From the steps of the memorial, Beck told the crowd of largely Tea Party supporters that the United States has "wandered in darkness" for too long and now is the time to "concentrate on the good things in America."

"This day is a day that we can start the hearts of America again and it has nothing to do with politics. It has everything to do with God," Beck said.

The Fox News personality has said he did not intend to choose the King anniversary for his rally but has since decided it was "divine providence."

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James Johnson of Delray Beach, Fla., was among those at the rally. ((Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press))

Palin told the crowds, who had been asked not to bring signs to the rally, that the spirit of King could be felt. She said that the way to honour King's legacy is to honour those men and women in the military who protect the United States.

"We must restore America and restore her honour," said the former governor, echoing the theme of the rally, "Restoring Honor."

"May this day be the change point," Palin said. "Look around you, you’re not alone. You are Americans!"

'Small hearts' criticized

Rev. Al Sharpton and other civil rights leaders held a counter-rally at a high school in the U.S. capital, then marched five kilometres to the site of a proposed memorial for King.

"They want to disgrace this day and we’re not giving them this day," Sharpton said. "This is our day."

Ben Jealous, head of the civil rights advocacy group NAACP, used the "Reclaim the Dream" rally to criticize the Tea Party movement, which gained popularity in conservative circles after Democrat Barack Obama won the presidency.

"For a year and a half we have been subjected to small hearts and small minds on our small screens," Jealous told the rally, adding that the majority of Americans "believe in progress" and "universal human dignity for all people."

Before attending the day's events, Sharpton said Beck's demonstration was an anti-government rally that advocated a "structural breakdown of a strong national government," counter to the message in King's speech.

But Clarence B. Jones, who served as King's personal attorney and his speechwriter, said he believes King would not be offended by Beck's rally but "pleased and honoured" that a diverse group of people would come together, almost five decade later, to discuss the future of America.

Jones, now a visiting professor at Stanford University, said the Beck rally seemed to be tasteful and did not appear to distort King's message, which included a recommitment to religious values.

"I think it is a testimony to the power and greatness of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. in enabling America to make a peaceful transition from apartheid and racial segregation to a multiracial society where Glenn Beck or anyone would hold a rally at the Lincoln Memorial," Jones said in a telephone interview.

With files from The Associated Press