"This is the start of getting black people together to get organisation to get some change," said Amon Ra, 50, an Ohio state employee who on Saturday drove more than 10 hours with his son to attend the Millions More Movement event, a decade after the Million Man March to empower black men in the US.
"We feel that, since black men occupy the majority of the unemployment rate, that we need to get some change to get them employed so they can take care of their families," Ra said, as marchers trudged to the venue in colourful T-shirts, some toting signs reading "defend affirmative action".
The Millions More Movement is aimed at bringing men, women and youth into "an effective national movement with the goal of transforming American society and eliminating poverty and injustice", organisers said in a statement.
Protestors said healthcare should
The event was organised by a broad coalition, including the Nation of Islam led by Louis Farrakhan, Reverend Jesse Jackson of the National Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and rap mogul-activist Russell Simmons, among others.
"We must now stand in this Millions More Movement for accountability," said Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat.
For Sarah Thompson, an ebullient student at Spelman College in Georgia, it was an occasion not to be missed.
"I came to say that young women are so powerful," said Thompson, 21. "And that young people are not apathetic.
"We are going to defend the dreams of our forefathers!" she said on the National Mall, within sight of the White House.
"There are so many things - healthcare, the economy" - that make marching worthwhile, said Ernest Twyman, a spry 86-year-old Washington resident.
"There is not much being done for our people. [President George] Bush hasn't done anything. The rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer," Twyman said.
"You see, we were freed from one thing and now we are in economic slavery," Twyman said. "And economic slavery is just as bad as physical slavery.
"Black people [in the US] have survived genocide," added Ra, who voiced hope the mass gathering could foster "black nationalism" inside the US.
Among the celebrities helping to fuel turnout were hip-hop and Hollywood stars Snoop Dogg, LL Cool J and Queen Latifah, as well as designer-rapper-actor-activist Sean "Diddy" Combs, Public Enemy and Wyclef Jean, who wowed the banner-waving crowd.
Rapper Kanye West, who accused Bush during a nationally televised Hurricane Katrina fundraiser of not caring about blacks, also supports the movement.
The man who is arguably the most powerful African-American politician, US Senator Barack Obama - a rising star of the Democratic Party - was scheduled to be in his home state on Saturday, his website said. Obama is currently the only black person in the US Senate.
"Economic slavery is just as bad as physical slavery"
James Gibson, a cable engineer who drove in his family of six from Connecticut, said he was keen to hear Farrakhan speak and hoped "that we as a whole can get together and get unified".
In a strange diplomatic twist, Ricardo Alarcon, the speaker of the Cuban National Assembly, appeared in a video message congratulating Farrakhan and complaining that the United States had rejected communist Cuba's offer of medical assistance after Hurricane Katrina.
"In the country that is supposed to be the richest one, the most powerful one, we learned that there is also a lot of misery," Alarcon said. "We are neighbours and we should be working together."
African-Americans made up 12.9% of the total US population in 2000, according to government data.