By Elizabeth Gleick
Updated April 11, 1994 12:00 PM

FIRST OF ALL, ITS COLD IN HERE. GET closer,” says the Reverend Jesse Jackson to the 300 students huddled on bleachers in the freezing gym-cum-auditorium at Phelps Career High School, a public school in a troubled neighborhood in northeastern Washington. A wave of excitement ripples through the room. Even the coolest and most disaffected boys, lounging in baggy jeans and sweatshirts in the upper rows, cannot take their eyes off Jackson. Without missing a beat, he commands the students—mostly black, mostly poor and mostly facing tremendous odds in life—to stand and repeat his words.

“Say, I am,” he intones.

“I am,” they answer.

“I am Somebody. Respect me. Protect me. Never neglect me.”

The call and response builds until it reaches a crescendo with shouts of: “Slop the violence. Save the children. Stop the violence. Save the children. Keep hope alive. Keep hope alive. Phelps No. 1!” The kids cheer wildly, grinning and waving their arms in the air. For a moment, at least, Jesse Jackson has done what he perhaps does best: he has transformed this roomful of teenagers into a single, hopeful organism.

There is a new sense of urgency to Jackson’s words. Though he has been traveling to America’s classrooms for many years, he used to talk to kids about such issues as teenage pregnancy. Now it is what he calls black-on-black violence that concerns him—and with good reason. Half of all homicide victims in 1992 were black, and almost all of those were slain by other blacks. Murder is the leading cause of death for black males aged 15 to 24. Alarmed by such statistics, Jackson has stepped up his school visits in recent months and has made special trips to places where student violence has occurred. And in addition to his familiar “I am Somebody” chant, he has begun asking students to join him in a pledge to break “the code of silence” by turning in their peers who do drugs or carry guns. “You have the power right now not to kill somebody,” he exhorts the students—still children, really—at Phelps. “Just because you were born in the slums does not mean the slum was born in you. You must change your mind.”

Over and over, Jackson—who at 52 has the graying hair, gold half-glasses and impeccably tailored suits of an elder statesman—pounds this message home. But though the kids sit transfixed, they have a different agenda. On this winter day, they are looking for help from D.C. mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, who has accompanied Jackson. One by one, boys and girls clutching pieces of paper with prepared questions approach the microphone. “Go, Theodore,” the kids yell, “Go, Kelly,” and as each one speaks, the shouts grow louder and the questions bolder. “Can we get some heat?” one asks. “Can you do something about the roaches in our cereal?” says another. “And our cold school lunches?” “Isn’t it a fire hazard to be locked in the classroom?” By the end the students are shrieking with laughter—they cannot believe that the school’s conditions are being exposed, much less that people are actually listening to them.

Jackson leaps up to restore order. He seizes their attention once again, starting his new pledge. “How many of you know somebody in your age group who is dead because of drugs? Stand up,” he begins. The students look at each other, shift self-consciously, and a few rise. “How many of you know somebody who is in jail because of drugs? If you know somebody in your school who has tried drugs, stand.” At this the kids just laugh, though they wait to see what Jackson will say next. “If you know somebody who has brought a gun to school, stand.” Jackson continues, undaunted. “If you don’t have the guts and courage to expose those who do,” he insists, “you cannot survive.”

After Jackson and Mayor Kelly leave, it is back to business as usual at Phelps. The principal keeps the kids in the gym to berate them for complaining about conditions. He tells them angrily that the locks on the classroom doors are necessary because some kids are problem students that no other school would take. (In fact, some students at Phelps are receiving court-mandated job training.) The aura of excitement and good feeling created by Jackson’s visit has dissipated. They no longer have faith in the pledge. “It’s beyond that,” says Latarsha Lewis, 17. Lewis, a Phelps senior who is editor of the school paper, is matter-of-fact. “We see all type of violence every day,” she says. “We have people who are being held up coming to school. We shouldn’t have to live like that.” Mario Johnson, 17, agrees. Even though many students did not stand, he says, “I can tell you right now that 90 percent of those people know somebody that died [from drugs or violence].” Jackson’s message, he says, “is not going to make everybody stop.”

Later that day, when Jackson is told of the aftermath at Phelps—of the principal who yelled at the students, and the students who see no way out of their troubles—he is somber. Seated in his plush corner office at the National Rainbow Coalition headquarters, where the walls display plaques and magazine covers featuring Jackson, he acknowledges that conditions in the schools often work against anything he might say. “You’re trying to climb a hill, and people are kicking rocks down on your face,” Jackson says of the students. “You’ve got to know those are your odds.”

In contrast to his high-energy performance at Phelps, Jackson now seems low-key and a little tired. He talks, almost inaudibly, of some of the events that brought the plague of violence home to him: of Launice Smith, a 4-year-old girl who was shot in the head in Washington as she sat in her mother’s lap; of the five murders last year in Jackson’s own middle-class D.C. neighborhood—one right in front of his wife, Jacqueline. “There is nothing more painful to me than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved,” Jackson confessed last fall. “After all we’ve been through, to think we can’t walk down our own streets—how humiliating.”

This controversial position has opened Jackson up to criticism from other black leaders who fear he is feeding racial stereotypes. “I don’t like the term black-on-black crime,” the Reverend Calvin Butts of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church has said. “Crime is crime. Murder is murder.” But Jackson—who has twice run for President and is now Washington’s “shadow” senator, which is an elected statehood-advocacy position, as well as president of the Rainbow Coalition—continues to call black-on-black violence the “No. 1 civil rights issue” in the country. “We cannot be silent in the face of random killings—no matter who the killers maybe,” he insists.

Earlier this year he convened a three-day Rainbow Coalition conference on violence, at which black leaders such as California’s Rep. Maxine Waters and D.C.’s Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton addressed such wide ranging issues as welfare and crime bill reform and the use of “nigger” and “bitch” in rap songs. And every Thursday morning Jackson holds a meeting of ministers, educators, police and parents called Rainbow Reclaim Our Youth. Their goals include selling up a nationwide mentoring program.

Jackson is also speaking out against the growing “three strikes” anticrime fervor. Figuring out a way to throw more people in jail, he insists, is not the answer to the problems he sees in the schools. “To speak of three strikes and you’re out—many of those kids never have a bat in the first place,” he says. For some, “going to jail is a step up.”

Indeed, it is hard to look at the students at Phelps, or at the other schools Jackson visits, and not feel a sense of despair. Yet when asked if this is a lost generation of children, the Reverend Jesse Jackson laughs. “No,” he says, his voice still bearing traces of his native Greenville, S.C., and automatically falling into its familiar preacherly rhythms. “What keeps me going is that if this room were totally dark, and one candle were lit, it would shine on in the darkness. It is hope that breaks the chain.”