ON Monday, in a high school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the Rev. Jesse Jackson stood on the stage of a nearly filled auditorium and spoke to the ache in the heart of black America.
For whatever reasons, and they are many and complex, large numbers of black youngsters in America are on a rampage of killing. And they are killing mostly one another.
The mortuaries in black neighborhoods are thick with the residue of homicide -- the stunned, the grieving and the dead. Two-year-olds, 3-year-olds, teen-agers, young black men and women.
Mr. Jackson told students at the Martin Luther King Jr. High School, "We lose more lives annually to the crime of blacks killing blacks than the sum total of lynchings in the entire history of the country." It is time, he said, to stop it.
Mr. Jackson is leading a national campaign against violence and other self-destructive behavior by young African-Americans. He believes, correctly, that the struggle to halt the wholesale destruction of a generation of black youngsters demands the same urgency and intensity of effort as the long and ultimately successful fight for civil rights.
He noted that none of the enormous problems that have previously faced blacks in America -- not slavery, not lynching, not legal segregation -- has been as deadly as today's catastrophic combination of violence, drug abuse and AIDS.
"What faces us today is preventable," he said. "It is within our power to change our behavior."
His campaign is designed to spotlight the problem, to create a sense of urgency and to get the young people -- the primary victims and potential victims of the violence -- to cry out against it. Mr. Jackson would like youngsters to find ways other than a knife to the throat or a bullet to the heart to settle a dispute, and, perhaps most difficult, to turn in peers who are trafficking in violence and drugs.
Gazing out at the 600 or 700 students in the audience, he said: "How many of you know someone in your age group who is dead because of drugs? Please stand."
About 25 percent of the students stood. A similar percentage rose when asked if they knew of someone who had distributed drugs at school. And about 40 percent of them stood when asked if they knew of someone who had brought a gun to school.
Mr. Jackson then said, "If you've told some teacher or someone in authority about somebody who is carrying guns or drugs, please stand." No one stood.
Mr. Jackson told the students that their "code of silence" made their school a sanctuary for those who would commit violence and distribute drugs.
The lesson was not over. The students were asked what they would do if they knew that someone -- a teacher, say, or a janitor -- had a sheet, a hood and some rope in his locker, or in the trunk of his car. The students called out that they would turn the person in.
"You would expose it," Mr. Jackson said.
"Yes!" came the reply.
Mr. Jackson's response was that "We are far more threatened by the dope than the rope." The Ku Klux Klan is not marching in Harlem or Brownsville or East New York. African-American teen-agers are not being hosed down by Bull Connor or barred from school by George Wallace. The danger is coming from the fellow student with a pistol in his knapsack, or a drug-dealing tenant in the next apartment, or a mugger who works the routes between home and school.
The real purpose of Jesse Jackson's effort is to return the dreams and the ordinary joy of childhood to African-American youngsters. We have waited far too long to confront this problem head on. There are other issues, yes. Poverty, joblessness, homelessness, many issues. And racism is still with us. But it's time to give the horrifying levels of violence and death among African-Americans the status of an emergency.
Jackson's campaign can only succeed if it attains a bandwagon effect, generating more and more attention, excitement and support as it goes along. A rally is planned for Detroit, marches for other cities. It won't be an easy effort, but there is none in black America that is more important.
Bob Herbert is a columnist for the New York Times.