The setting was simple. A preacher, a church and a heartfelt appeal to turn back the twin scourges of drugs and guns. But when the preacher is Jesse L. Jackson and the church is the prison chapel at Lorton, the crowd comes to their feet for the message: the killing, the despair, the disregard for life has got to stop.
"Every day here can be just like every other," said Howard Bethea, who four months ago was sentenced to five to 15 years for drug distribution and weapon possession. "But he brought the holiday to me."
The mere appearance of Jackson, elected to one of the District's two shadow senator lobbying positions, sparked cheers and applause from the crowd of 300, many of whom carried Bibles. When he spoke -- a Christmastime sermon designed to stanch the flow of drugs and guns that once again has driven the homicide rate of the District to a record-high -- their mood turned somber.
Black people have paid dearly for racial intolerance, Jackson said. Death, oppression and injustice were the threat of the slave master and the klansman. Why, he asked plaintively, are blacks now doing the killing themselves? Why are nearly 500 residents of the District dead this year alone from violent crime, crime that is largely black-upon-black crime?
"There is no redeeming fact here in killing each other," he said.
"If some whites killed 500 blacks, we would be rioting. You couldn't contain us. If 500 whites had been killed by blacks, there'd be so many electrocutions, they've have to make portable electric chairs.
"So if whites killing blacks makes you riot and blacks killing whites can get you electrocuted, then what about the system makes blacks killing blacks permissive?"
Jackson waited for no answer from his audience, 4 percent of the 6,900 people at the correctional complex, 98 percent of whom are black. Most of them are men in their twenties and thirties. Later, the inmates, many doing time at the District-run Lorton Correctional Complex in southern Fairfax County for just the type of crimes that Jackson bemoaned, said he spoke the truth. What they could do about it, even what Jackson could do about it, was not so obvious.
"He makes me want to work toward my goals," said Kevin Brown, a convicted drug trafficker who has served eight months of a three-year sentence.
Daniel Wilkerson, a piano player for the prison choir, is serving 20 years to life for first-degree murder. In the years he has been at Lorton, he has received three associate degrees and a bachelor's degree in urban studies from the University of the District of Columbia.
He said he has found a way to look beyond the bars. Jackson's coming to Lorton lends hope to his dream of a future of freedom. "He's trying to do something for us," said Wilkerson. "That's important. I've come to believe he's a real concerned person."
But Jackson perhaps did his best when he took on the crowd, one by one, and gave them encouragement. James Sims, 44, who said he met Jackson in 1987 at a graduation ceremony, said he got the best advice when he embraced Jackson as the preacher mounted the stage.
"So we meet again," said Sims, who is serving a sentence for drug distribution. "Don't come back here," Jackson said.