The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) kicked off its 26th annual convention here yesterday, with leaders of the organization saying that they were determined to turn "this country around" and get it back on the track of racial progress.

The highlight of the convention will be a presidential candidates' forum this afternoon at New Bethel Baptist Church in which four Democratic presidential candidates will have an opportunity to lay out their positions on issues of concern to the conferees.

To date, Sens. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), and Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) and former Florida governor Reubin Askew have sent word that they will participate, SCLC officials said.

SCLC president Joseph E. Lowery sidestepped questions about SCLC's position on a black presidential candidate in 1984.

During a press conference he said that the SCLC would not be endorsing a candidate for next year's race, but that after the forum individual SCLC leaders may come out in favor of the candidates who best met their concerns and who they feel would have the best shot at "purchasing a one-way ticket back West" for President Reagan.

The civil rights organization, formed by Rev. Martin Luther King in the wake of the 381-day Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in 1955-56, timed its convention to coincide with Saturday's 20th anniversary march on Washington. Lowery said that the march would be an attempt to bring a message to the American people, which is "the court of last resort. It's they who must be awakened."

"Twenty years later, when we gather for what we think will be a most historic occasion, we are being told that America still cannot afford freedom and justice for all its citizens," Lowery said. "We are determined to change this nation around. We've come too far, marched too far, bled too profusely and died too young to see the clock turned back on racial progress."

Some of the speakers scheduled for the convention include D. C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy, Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, activist Dick Gregory, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King, Ralph D. Abernathy, Rep. William H. Gray (D-Pa.) and D. C. Mayor Marion Barry.