MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- From the pulpit of the church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his last sermon, President Clinton warned a gathering of black ministers yesterday that the victories of the civil rights movement were being sullied by a "great crisis of the spirit that is gripping America today."
In an emotional appeal for people to take responsibility for the ills around them, Mr. Clinton said it would be difficult to explain to the civil rights leader the way the rate of crime and violence have soared even as black Americans have won a larger role in American society.
"How would we explain that we gave people the freedom to succeed and we created the conditions in which millions abuse that freedom to destroy the things that make life worth living and life itself?" Mr. Clinton asked.
As a white-robed choir sat in rapt silence behind him, he answered somberly. "We cannot."
Mr. Clinton said he feared that if Dr. King could return to the pulpit today, he would feel a sense of grim betrayal. He might say: "I fought to stop white people from being so filled with hate that they would wreak violence on black people. I did not fight for the right of black people to murder other black people with reckless abandon."
The White House had given no indication that Mr. Clinton intended to deliver a major address. And the intensity of his remarks surprised even his aides, who said they had expected him to articulate the broad themes but not to do so with such fervor.
They added, however, that the president's remarks reflected a welling-up of his concern about social ills and a new determination that his administration be seen as addressing the crime problem head-on.
Mr. Clinton said he had been personally moved by recent news accounts of violence among young people. And as he stood before the ministers in the Temple Church of God in Christ in an economically depressed neighborhood of south Memphis, he did not hold back from vivid description of social ills that have plagued the black community more than any other.
The president said he grieved that more than 37,000 Americans are killed each year by gunshot wounds and that 160,000 children stay home from school each day in fear of violence there.
But he said that while passage of tough anti-crime legislation could help to limit the damage, any lasting answers must come from within individuals and social institutions.
"I tell you, unless we do something about crime and drugs and violence that is ravaging our country, it will destroy us," Mr. Clinton said. He later vowed: "Somehow, by God's grace, we will turn it around."
For a president who tends to wrestle in many speeches with the arcana of public policy, Mr. Clinton's address to 5,000 ministers and other leaders gathered in the cavernous church was remarkable for its passion and emotion. His speech was interrupted many times by applause.
Welcomed as "the first president of the United States to set foot in this holy place," he made clear that he recognized the significance of his visit to the last church in which Dr. King spoke on the night before his assassination in 1968.
It was in that final appearance that Dr. King seemed to foresee his own death as he said he had seen the promised land but told the congregation, "I may not get there with you."
Mr. Clinton clearly felt at home among the group, which was taking part in the 86th convocation of the Church of God in Christ, and to whom he was momentarily introduced as Bishop Clinton. He said he recognized that he could not have won election without the support of the black community, and said he had done his best since taking office to keep the faith.
But Mr. Clinton seemed intent on being seen to urge black Americans to assume greater responsibility for their communities.