The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, one of the nation's most storied civil rights groups, brought its national Stop the Killing Campaign to a West Baltimore church last night.
The Atlanta-based SCLC, founded in 1957 by the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others, was in Baltimore for its semiannual board meeting today, but the city's murder rate also made the setting appropriate.
Ninety homicides had been reported in 1992 in Baltimore as of last night, slightly ahead of last year's pace. Even as the rally was under way, a person was shot to death about 8:45 p.m.in the 5500 block of Moravia Road. No details were immediately available.
"We're killing each other in unprecedented numbers," the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, the conference president, told the rally at John Wesley United Methodist Church. "Black-on-black crime has turned our streets crimson, and we must rise up in community of faith and in coalition of conscience, and step out on God's word and stop the killing."
Dr. Lowery traced the increase in violent crime to moral decay.
"We have divorced the good spouse of spirituality, and we are carrying on an affair with the prostitute of greed and materialism. Greed and materialism have offspring, and it's called violence," he told an enthusiastic audience of about 250.
Dr. Lowery said the group favors legislation to control the sale of handguns, programs to take guns off the streets by buying them with money confiscated from drug dealers, workshops on non-violence, and job training opportunities for young black men.
The SCLC was in Baltimore in the wake of a Detroit News poll thatshowed 94 percent of black Americans think major civil rights groups have lost touch with blacks' everyday problems.
Although most blacks surveyed said such organizations are still useful, many wanted them to move beyond civil rights work and deal with the problems of crime, education and joblessness.
Dr. Lowery, who has headed the SCLC since 1977, defended the group's work in an interview.
"Our role is the same as it has always been: to fight sin and to fight racism," he said. "If racism no longer exists, we're out of touch. If racism exists, we're right on point."
He said racism has "taken on a more subversive nature -- it dresses up like Pat Buchanan, David Duke and sometimes like George Bush," but that it is "alive and too well."
The SCLC does not endorse presidential candidates, but Dr. Lowery told last night's rally that he was less interested in whether Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas had smoked marijuana 25 years ago than in whether his policies would help put food on the table and rebuild America's cities.
"I have never seen one man take so much punishment and still hold his head up and keep his dignity as Bill Clinton has. Most people would have crumbled under the charges," he said.
Unlike the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation's most influential civil rights organization, the SCLC supported the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.
Dr. Lowery said before the rally that he was "very disappointed" so far with Justice Thomas' performance on the court.
But he said there still was a better chance that the black justice would embrace the civil rights agenda than anybody else President Bush might have nominated.
"We hoped and prayed he might remember growing up black and poor in Pinpoint, Ga. So far his memory has not cleared . . . but he might someday, like the prodigal son, come home," Dr. Lowery said.
While Benjamin L. Hooks has announced that he will step down next year as executive director of the NAACP, which has its national headquarters in Baltimore, Dr. Lowery, 67, said he had no plans to resign his SCLC post.
"In the SCLC we're more of a spiritual organization, and God usually calls our leaders," he said.
"We move by the spirit. . . . Right now, it says, 'Full speed ahead, fight racism, stop the killing, get health care, open economic opportunities.'--"