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, but the city's murder rate also made the setting appropriate.
Ninety homicides had been reported in 1992 in Baltimore, slightly ahead of last year's pace. Even as the rally was under way, a 19-year-old man was shot to death in the 5500 block of Moravia Road.
"We're killing each other in unprecedented numbers," the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, the conference president, told an enthusiastic audience of about 250 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," he said.
He said the group favors legislation to control sales 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 that showed 94 percent of black Americans think major civil rights groups have lost touch with blacks' everyday problems.
Dr. Lowery, who has headed the SCLC since 1977, defended the group's work: "Our role is the same as it has always been: to fight sin and to fight racism. If racism no longer exists, we're out of touch. If racism exists, we're right on point."
The SCLC does not endorse presidential candidates, but Dr. Lowery said he was less interested in whether Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton had smoked marijuana 25 years ago than in whether his policies would help rebuild America's cities.
"I have never seen one man take so much punishment and still hold is head up and keep his dignity as Bill Clinton has," he said.
While Benjamin L. Hooks has announced that he will step down next year as executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which has its national headquarters in Baltimore, Dr. Lowery, 67, said he had no plans to resign his SCLC post.