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
National Journal
Patrick Reis
See more stories about...
Patrick Reis
Aug. 26, 2013, 8:30 a.m.

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.”

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