They gathered to celebrate 129 years of freedom yesterday.
And while there was cause for African Americans to rejoice at the annual Emancipation Proclamation and Jubilee Day Service in Baltimore, there also was concern that a new force -- violence -- threatened to enslave them.
"We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us," said Representative Kweisi Mfume, D-Md.-7th, after noting that seven homicides have occurred in Baltimore already this new year. "We are not at war with the union. . . . We are at war with us."
The homicide victims, he said, included two women who were sisters and two children.
"Can you imagine the hurt and anguish our ancestors feel looking down on us in 1992?" he asked.
Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke dropped prepared remarks to tell the audience of about 750 that on his way to the event at the Willard W. Allen Masonic Temple, he had heard a radio report that yet another homicide had occurred in the city -- just a few blocks away.
"Why? Why are we killing ourselves the way we are?" he asked.
The event, sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Prince Hall Masonic groups and area churches, served not only to commemorate President Abraham Lincoln's proclamation to abolish slavery in 1863 but also to galvanize community and civil rights activism.
Mr. Mfume, a former Baltimore city councilman who was the keynote speaker, said true liberation doesn't come from a signed document but from one's own mind.
He urged the public to become involved because the "promise of equality still remains unfilled." He cited shortcomings in federal government programs, including education, civil rights and social services.
Mayor Schmoke, noting that Maryland's General Assembly convenes Wednesday, asked people to write or call their legislators to urge changes in the state's formula for funding public education -- which he said shortchanges Baltimore students.
Liberty and freedom, Mr. Schmoke said, are not spectator sports.
"Each of us is more important than the savings and loans that got bailed out by the [federal] government," he said.
The NAACP has declared January "Special Voter Registration Month" in Maryland and planned to use the Jubilee event and activities associated with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday this month to sign up voters.