An array of speakers also urged listeners to vote on Nov. 7 - "against police brutality and the execution of innocents," the Rev. Al Sharpton exhorted. "You have an obligation to our ancestors to vote."
The gathering commemorated the fifth anniversary of the Million Man March, and both events were organized by Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. The Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church also supported yesterday's march, which drew an eclectic mix of Christians, Muslims and Jews.
Several speakers said they believed the crowd numbered at least a million people.
No official estimate of the crowd was available because the National Park Service stopped offering them after its 1995 estimate of 100,000 for the Million Man March drew controversy. Farrakhan reckoned that crowd at closer to 800,000; independent analysts agreed that that was closer to the truth.
More than 10,000 buses were chartered nationwide to bring families to yesterday's event, including at least 175 from the Philadelphia area.
John Anderson, 68, of West Oak Lane, a retired truck driver who brought two of his five children, said he attended the Million Man March five years ago as well.
"I don't miss a march," said Anderson, who said he was concerned about violent and profane lyrics in popular music. "It's a learning process, and something that I think will eventually help us. . . . Hopefully, some of the words Farrakhan says will be used to bring families together."
Diane Hawkins, a single mother from North Philadelphia, brought a son, granddaughter and two nieces. "I thought it was important to come here because the family unit is dismantled, and we have to reestablish it," Hawkins said.
Others came from more than a thousand miles away.
Krista Allen, 21, said she came during the fall break from her studies at Doane College in Crete, Neb. "I want to get everybody together as one so we see no racial lines. We want to be as one," said Allen, who flew in from Omaha and met her father, Donald - who had driven 25 hours straight from Grand Island, Neb.
"I'm learning more about the culture and heritage and how each of us is similar," said Donald Allen, 50, a truck mechanic. "But we do grow up with racist instincts, and the only way we are going to change is by coming out and learning."
In a rambling keynote speech that lasted well over an hour, Farrakhan touched on violence in the Middle East, the presidential race, welfare reform and poverty. Known in part for his past condemnation of Judaism and his fiery rhetoric of self-help for African Americans, the Nation of Islam minister said the world's people must look beyond race. At one point, Farrakhan used a bouquet of flowers as a metaphor for racial diversity.
"What is more beautiful than a bouquet of flowers, different colors, but growing out of a common earth, needing a common water, growing into a common atmosphere? Who would be stupid enough to say a rose is better than the orchid?" he asked.
Minister Benjamin Muhammad, the march's director and former director of the NAACP, told the crowd: "I want a great turnout [on Nov. 7], so go out and vote and let the politicians know: 'Your policies must reflect our agenda.' "
Not everyone in the crowd cared about the election.
"All the politics and stuff, that's secondary," said Kirtley Jones, a landscaper from Charlotte, N.C., who came with his son, Alex, and 12 other people. "I support the concept of a God-centered family, and that's why I'm here."
Camille Rucker, 27, and Jason Harding, 31, of New York City, drove down with friends on Saturday. Harding, who attended the Million Man March in 1995, said yesterday's event did not have the same energy because the climate had changed.
In 1995, black neighborhoods were being devastated by crack cocaine, the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots was still reverberating, and black churches were being burned in the South, Harding said.
"So everybody wanted to go. Everywhere you went, the barbershop, work, anywhere - that's what everybody was talking about. But this time around, a lot of people didn't even know about it," he said.
Area officials had braced for more than a million people and had opened the local subway system two hours early, at 4 a.m., to accommodate crowds. In an effort to ease traffic, local and federal workers were allowed to take the day off.
By midafternoon, the crowd stretched along the mall from the steps of the Capitol to the Washington Monument, a mile away.
Speakers included black Muslims, American Indian tribal leaders, members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Unification Church leaders. Farrakhan, joined by rabbis, ministers and other clerics, led a marriage blessing for about 80 new couples, an event similar to those at which the Rev. Moon has presided in the past.
Tony Pugh's e-mail address is tpugh