The 14th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s death -- and the riots it touched off here -- found one of King's disciples, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, at St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church in Northeast Washington yesterday preaching to an overflow crowd of Palm Sunday worshipers.
As a bright Sunday morning streamed through the open doors of the church's auditorium, about 1,000 parishioners listened to the Baptist minister from Chicago, who was dressed in a cream-colored chasuble with a stole knitted in the colors of black liberation, red, black and green.
To occasional calls of "amen" and "yes, Lord," he talked not of record-high black unemployment, busing school children for desegregation or other more standard black issues, but of Haiti. For most of the hour he spoke from the pulpit, he criticized the U.S. treatment of Haitian refugees, many of whom have been confined to camps.
Jackson called for a national movement to persuade the Reagan administration to grant asylum to those fleeing the tiny Caribbean republic. He called for the wearing of red ribbons to dramatize the situation.
After the sermon, in which he told the audience not to give up efforts for equality at home, Jackson led more than 300 demonstrators in a march on the State Department to amplify his Haitian plea. He also lead a brief prayer for King, which ended with Jackson's familiar "I am somebody" chant.
The events of the day saw Jackson, one of the inheritors of King's mantle, fighting a new kind of civil rights battle -- although the tactic of ribbons is now a familiar one -- and seeking to link it with traditional black concerns. U.S. immigration policies against Haitians, he said, were no different from southern Jim Crow laws that King spent his life fighting.
When Jackson called the U.S. detention centers for Haitians "concentration camps," a woman yelled out from the audience, "We'll be next." When Jackson said that Haitians are black and differ from black Americans only because their slave ships stopped in Haiti rather than North Carolina or Virginia, he found rousing support.
And when Jackson cited racism as the only explanation for the adminstration's position to turn would-be Haitian immigrants back to their shores, again the crowd responded.
Later in the afternoon, as Jackson held a press conference in front of the State Department, demonstrators, many of whom followed him across town from the church, quietly sang "We Shall Overcome."
"What we have had go on here has been geared toward the raising of moral consciousness for the poor and needy," said Rawlin B. Enette, pastor of St. Benedict's, who describes his parish as black middle class. "What we are trying to do is teach the universality of men. Therefore, the Haitians was a very good question to start this off with. They are Catholic and black."
Enette said Jackson helped give his church's humanitarian efforts more focus. However, yesterday morning, Jackson's visit brought confusion to the church's service.
Announcements of blocked cars and the plea, "Will any Christian men give their seats to some of the ladies?" rang out over the public address system nearly an hour before the service began. The church auditorium was standing-room-only.
"Do you know if Jesse Jackson is going to be late?" politely asked 9-year-old Immauri Patterson. Finding no definitive response, the boy, dressed in his usher-boy whites, dropped his head and waited in the confusion like all the others.
"This man warrants this," said Johnny Coleman, whose sister-in-law belongs to St. Benedict's and who came to hear Jackson speak. "He not only raises the consciousness of this nation, but of the world. He reminds me of being almost like King."