Washington -- Jesse Jackson was looking very much like a has-been as recently as two months ago.
After building up hopes, then ducking out of running for mayor of the District of Columbia, his stellar career as a tree-shaker and headline grabber seemed to slide to the brink of oblivion.
After two unsuccessful campaigns for president, his campaign for District of Columbia statehood, a stillborn issue that he single-handedly reignited, was going nowhere fast. His opposition to NAFTA left his image almost as battered as Ross Perot's opposition left his. Mr. Jackson was marching tirelessly for various causes, but was anyone listening?
Well, don't count him out, I cautioned detractors. Mr. Jackson was already playing the ''Comeback Kid'' when Bill Clinton was still smoking without inhaling at Oxford.
Since America is addressing its great questions of race and poverty as poorly as ever, I expected it would only be a matter of time before another crisis of race and poverty would come along that only a Jesse Jackson could address and he would be back in the headlines, strong as ever.
Now, a few months later (surprise, surprise!) Mr. Jackson has found his issue: black criminals.
Or, as he puts it, the BBB -- ''Bad Black Brother.'' In one of his strongest statements, he has admitted, ''There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery. Then look around and see someone white and feel relieved.''
To stop the BBB, Mr. Jackson has been urging black teen-agers not only to behave but also to break their ''code of silence'' and turn in classmates who are carrying guns or using drugs. I don't know how many will do it, but it's good to hear Mr. Jackson say it.
A Ronald Reagan or Dan Quayle saying that would be crucified as a latent or blatant racist. But, with the moral authority that comes with black skin and decades of bashing white power elites, Mr. Jackson has won widespread praise and a new wave of media attention.
Riding the wave, Mr. Jackson's Washington-based National Rainbow Coalition teamed with a longtime pal, Bill Cosby, to host a three-day, star-studded ''National Black Leadership Conference on Youth Violence and Black on Black Crime'' last weekend in Washington.
Among the big names: Spike Lee, Salt 'N' Pepa, Mary Frances Berry, Roger Wilkins, Marian Wright Edelman, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Attorney General Janet Reno, Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer and Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun. (No word from Sister Souljah.)
Will Mr. Jackson's anti-violence campaign do any good? No question that it has done a great deal of good for his public image. With fear of violent crime suddenly soaring as a concern in opinion polls, many who disagree with Mr. Jackson on other issues are pulling for him to succeed with this one.
Mr. Jackson's stance also has given President Clinton, whose political centrism often has been at odds with Mr. Jackson's left-progressivism, leave to take on black-on-black crime and black-on-black responsibility in his highly publicized November sermon in a black Memphis church.
The real change here is not so much with Mr. Jackson as with the way he gets covered. He and most other black groups, particularly at the neighborhood level, have always opposed the terrible toll crime takes on black communities. But major media tend to ignore such self-help efforts in favor of sound bites that, at worst, ''Blame Whitey'' or, at best, urge more attention to the ''root causes'' of crime, like poverty, joblessness and poor education.
If Mr. Jackson has helped liberate the airwaves to discuss the toll of black-on-black crime more honestly, he has performed a great service. The most recent FBI statistics show 94 percent of blacks killed are killed by other blacks. As a threat to black life, the Ku Klux Klan doesn't even come close.
But the less happy side of Mr. Jackson's bold new stance is that it risks encouraging unhealthy stereotypes by putting a black face on crime, as if blacks, not crime, were the problem. Richard Cohen, the liberal Washington Post columnist (and a friend of mine), who received nationwide criticism from some blacks -- including me -- a few years ago for sympathizing with jewelry store owners who refused to buzz young black males in past their electronic door openers, said he now feels vindicated by Mr. Jackson's statements.
At last, he wrote, maybe we can speak candidly about black crime across racial lines without name calling.
Maybe, but again let's remember: The problem is crime, not blacks.
It is important to note, for example, that the FBI says white crime has increased 250 percent since 1965. Similarly disturbing statistics recently reported by conservative author Charles Murray (''Losing Ground'') show a growing ''underclass'' of long-term poor whites in America, along with growing pathologies among poor whites that the media usually associate with poor blacks.
No, America's crime problems will not be solved simply by locking up blacks. Nothing quick or cheap will solve our problems with crime, race and poverty. Quick fixes only put a lid on our problems for a little while, until the next crisis erupts -- and Mr. Jackson once again answers the call to action.
Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.