A few days ago, while traveling in Virginia, I picked up the Roanoke Times and World News after noticing a hometown headline. ''Barry Trial Heats Racial Anger,'' it read. Seeing it, I realized that being away from Washington did not let one avoid the disturbing issues arising from the world-famous Barry trial.
A popular local radio talk show host was quoted as saying, ''If something happens to the mayor, this city is going to burn.'' A city council member used the term ''explosive point.'' An African-American scholar suggested that ''the mayor is exploiting a vein in the black community which is deep, and that is a sense of victimization.''
If even one of those commentaries is correct, then the leaders and citizens of this city should feel not only anger but shame.
Critical times always evoke powerful language and rhetorical extravagance. During this time of crisis, much is being said about the trial of Mayor Barry and the federal government's role in his downfall. But if one person is killed on our streets during any ''burning,'' if anything explodes or if we allow ourselves to be exploited or further victimized, the entire citizenry should sit in sackcloth and ashes.
Mayor Barry has undoubtedly done much good for the District of Columbia. He has served for 11 years during a period of expansion and growth. However, by his own admission, he has made serious mistakes. He has fallen prey to the drug culture, which has the potential to destroy our city. He along with all of us now knows the pain and suffering this involvement can bring.
Because Barry is a public figure, his difficulties take on more significance than those of ordinary citizens. These personal errors have bruised our city and caused disunity and suspicion among our people. It has been charged that the mayor is a victim of a white, racist judicial system. Black and white, we all find ourselves taking sides on the issue of his effectiveness as a future leader.
But in spite of all the tension and suspicion, the time has now come for healing rather than further divisiveness.
The mayor's problems are not unlike those the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. faced more than 20 years ago. Powell, too, experienced the attacks that many African-American leaders suffer in our country today. What we learned from the Powell episode is that, while racism still exists, we as black leaders must have an effective strategy for progress in the face of tremendous opposition.
In our reflections, we must never lose sight of the distinction between what is morally good and what is legally correct. Often these two issues go hand in hand. In some cases, however, there is an important difference.
Entrapment, if proved in Marion Barry's case, is without a doubt legally wrong. The mayor's talented attorneys will argue this case. But as black people, we must also lift up the moral concerns for our children while we continue to demand justice in the courts. Our young people must know by word and deed that drug use must be avoided, that family life is sacred and that improper behavior of mayors, teachers, preachers, public officials or the neighbor next door is wrong.
The key issues facing the District of Columbia are drugs, violence, the growing AIDS epidemic, a lack of adequate and affordable housing and unemployment. The Barry case must not divert our attention from the need to develop long-term solutions for the District's ills.
We cannot allow one person to die on our streets as the result of inflammatory statements that suggest the city could ''burn.'' If we do, we make a mockery of what Marion Barry and other leaders have sought to do for our city. The time has come for a diminution of the rhetoric and an increase in action.
Leaders -- old and young, black and white -- must put away personal agendas. They must reason together. A strategy for social change must be articulated anew, and we must go through a painful process of self-reflection from which we will emerge willing to undergo public scrutiny for the good of long-term social progress.
Black-on-black violence has occurred too often in American history. The riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr.'s death exemplified how African Americans destroyed themselves and their property. We violated Dr. King's philosophy of nonviolence, and we will do even further damage to his dream if we explode in 1990.
The writer is pastor of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington.