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What the Government Won’t Tell You About the 'March on Washington' What the Government Won’t Tell You About the 'March on Washington'

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Policy

What the Government Won’t Tell You About the 'March on Washington'

And what does Louis Farrakhan have to do with it?

It can be difficult, and often dangerous, for government agencies to produce crowd estimates.(AP Photo)

photo of Patrick Reis
August 26, 2013

Want to know how many people attended this weekend's commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech?

Don't ask the National Park Service. Officials there won't tell you. In fact, they won't even guess.

Congress has banned the service from producing crowd-size estimates, hoping to spare the federal government the controversy it encountered following the Million Man March of the 1990s.

 

In 1995, Louis Farrakhan and other members of the National African American Leadership Summit endeavored to bring 1 million people to the National Mall to bring attention to problems faced by black men.

Following the protest, the Park Service estimated the crowd at 400,000, less than half the number the organizers had hoped for. Incensed, Farrakhan accused the government of deliberately low-balling its estimate to understate the march's importance, evening threatening to sue the Park Service over its estimate.

In a subsequent appropriations bill, Congress banned the service from using any funds to carry out crowd estimates, saying that organizations should hire private firms to produce crowd estimates.

There remains no consensus figure on the size of the Million Man March, with some nonfederal estimates backing the NPS figure—which the service has not retracted—and other estimates putting the number closer to 900,000.

As for this weekend's "I Have a Dream" commemoration, most media outlets have stayed vague. The Washington Post and National Public Radio went with "thousands" (Washington Post), while the Associated Press opted for "tens of thousands."

The March On Washington, 50 Years Later

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