WHEN I TELL PEOPLE that I began my education in a one-room segregated schoolhouse in Kansas City, I feel like a fraud, not because the fact is wrong (it is not), but because the emotional image it conveys -- of a poor little 4-year-old black child having his spirit crushed by segregation in the State of Missouri -- is wrong. I was an optimistic and very lucky child who had an unshakable faith that America would keep her constitutional promise to us. The Constitution is like a nuclear warhead. Not many of us have actually looked at it, but we all know what it means to us because we've spent a lot of time clothing it in garments we've woven from our personal histories.

The celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Constitution is, on one level, about pictures and memories. The dominant pictures are those of a group of contemplative people dressed in 18th-century clothing in a room in Philadelphia 200 summers ago. The popular memory con-

nected to the celebration seems to consist of a series of heroic, imagined pictures of great Americans struggling successfully to expand and perfect the union under the benign umbrella of the wise and flexible scheme laid out by those people in Philadelphia.

Those are powerful images. But even in youthful innocence, a black American born in the 20th century cannot avoid noticing that all the people in the pictures are white and male. And, no matter how powerful the celebratory culture is -- and it is immensely powerful -- a black American cannot help testing those images and the purported constitutional promises against the dailiness of his own life. After all, his American memory contains the possibility that one or more of the men in the picture actually owned one or more of his black ancestors. Nevertheless, as I reflect upon my own conception -- during my period of maximum innocence -- of what the Constitution promised me and other Americans like me, I am stunned by how powerful the culture was in inflating the promise and the men who made it.

The Constitution is a lot of things. It is, for example, a series of political compromises about power and trade. But in my early days, I did not view it as a document that dealt with the Atlantic trade, or that set up different forms of representation in the Senate and House or counted blacks as three-fifths of a white human being. Rather, I viewed the Constitution as Promise, a basket containing scraps of things I'd heard about: Jefferson's words (how was I to know they were from a different document?), "We the people" and the commands of the First, 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. All of that added up, in my young mind, to promises of freedom and equality and justice to all of us "We the people," in a country great enough to dream up those promises in the first place.

I was optimistic in those years, despite what I knew of the world. I knew, clearly, that the country was unfair to blacks. When I was very young, I loved to watch "streamlined" trains run under the viaduct near our house on their way to Santa Fe. Once, when I was 4, I told my father that I wanted to drive one of those trains when I grew up. He told me that I wouldn't be able to because white people made the rules and one of the rules was that Negroes couldn't drive trains, only white people could. I told him that was unfair. He agreed and told me I should fight against it. I agreed. That was that.

My optimism and my luck were results of my association with my parents. First, they had jobs. I could see that their bosses thought well of them. They were optimistic people. From their talk, their behavior and their plans, I could tell that they expected that they could, by their own efforts, improve our lives, which weren't all that bad to begin with. Best of all, these competent people made it possible for me to believe in my own future. If my parents had been unemployed, depressed and unable to manipulate their environment, my early shaping would have been entirely different, and my view of the constitutional promise would surely also have been different.

During my youth, the Depression just never came up. My parents and their friends -- our neighbors -- didn't have much money by the standards of the world, but they were very well fixed for black folks in those times. They were teachers or social workers or postal employes or journalists. If any of them ever worried that their jobs would stop, they never let on to the children. And so, I never had to worry about the American economy when I was young. Its strength and growth were givens.

But as I began to listen to the grown-ups, there were conditions that did fill up the corners of my world. They were the laws and the customs of race.

Kansas City is hot in the summer, and when I was a child, there was no air conditioning and no television. After the sun went down, the adults sat on porches and talked, waiting for the bedrooms to cool. We children played in the yards until the darkness was down tight in the West, and then we would be called to the porch, where we could be easily supervised and sent off to bed when the time came. When I stopped chasing lightning bugs long enough to listen to the talk, it was about race. What I most remember are stories about black people getting around segregation. Mr. Robinson, who was a railway mail clerk, would tell stories about the postal service, and Mr. Marsden, my godfather and the principal of a black high school, would talk about the board of education, my mother would tell stories from the world of social service, and my father would tell about the whites who advertised at the paper where he worked.

Here is a story that illustrates the genre. It is about the time my grandmother took me shopping at one of the major downtown stores. I was 2 or 3. When we were on the top floor, I told her that I needed to go to the bathroom, so she asked the white salesclerk where the ladies' room was. The woman told her that we could not use the restroom on that floor, but would have to go all the way down to the basement to use the "colored" ladies' room. I began to do an urgent dance, and my grandmother pointed that out to the clerk, who still wouldn't budge. So, my grandmother said, "All right, Roger, you can go right here," and she began to unbutton my fly. I was then permitted to integrate the ladies' room.

The stories were all like that. In them, and perhaps in the minds of the adults, racism was not pervasive, institutional, cultural and economic. It wasn't even called racism. Lighter words -- segregation, discrimination and prejudice -- were used. And the problem always came down to dull-witted white individuals who were quickly entrapped by clever blacks in the clumsiness, stupidity and hypocrisy of a system that denied humanity to a whole race of people. It was not hard for an optimistic youngster's mind to conclude that the system would crumble under the combined weight of smart blacks, good whites and the noble Laws of the Land, not to mention the laws of God.

I remember my first white man. He was working on a WPA project in our neighborhood just a few doors down the street from our house. I was not quite 4 at the time, but I was allowed to go down and watch the men pour concrete since they were working on our block and on our side of the street. I had watched silently, alone for quite a while, when one of the men spoke to me. I remember that he was tall and pale and wore coveralls. He asked gently:

"What's your name, little boy?"

"Roger-baby," I replied politely. "What's yours?"

The man looked very sad as he paused before he answered, both hands on the handle of his shovel:

"Little boy," he said finally, "I'm so poor I don't even have a name."

As I write these words 51 years later, I experience a tangible feeling of sadness and tenderness in the middle of my chest. He was my first white man, and because of him, I've never since been able to impute absolute evil to white people.

But there were other white people, too. When I was 5, they made the decision to close our little one-room neighborhood school and to bus us many miles across town to the nearest functioning black school. On those bus rides the seeds of a lifelong strain of bitterness -- that would live side-by-side with my optimism -- were planted in my psyche. On our drive to the old and crumbling Crispus Attucks school, there were two newer and nicer schools for white children. I didn't mind the daily bus rides. I minded the fact that the white people hogged the nice, new schools for themselves. A generation later, of course, the descendants of that group of They would cry crocodile tears about the inhumanity of busing tiny, vulnerable children for so frivolous a purpose as the desegregation of schools. But of course by then, mean white people were no longer abstractions to me.

Back in the early days there was another white man who came regularly into my life. He didn't come in person, he came via our living room radio. I don't remember his words, only his voice. He was the president. Franklin D. Roosevelt doesn't look nearly as good on the race issue in retrospect as he seemed at the time. I suspect that on this question and a number of others, Eleanor Roosevelt made her husband appear better than he deserved. But, whatever the reason, he was Father Franklin, and we believed him to be good and decent. He was for the little person, and we were little. He was the white, powerful living embodiment of my whole little basket of constitutional yearnings. I knew there were mean white people out there doing mean things to black people every day. But I also knew about the humanity in my first white man's face, and I believed that there was a good white person up at the top trying to pull the ignorant ones up out of the muck. BEFORE WE LEFT MISSOURI IN 1941 WHEN I WAS 9, I WAS aware of only one constitutional doctrine: separate but equal. I knew it was stupidly unfair, but ironically, it had the effect of making me believe more deeply that the constitutional promise of equality would eventually be achieved.

Both my parents had grown up in Minnesota and had graduated from the university there. I was barred from the University of Missouri by segregation. Under the elaboration of the doctrine in Plessy v. Ferguson, the State of Missouri was required to provide black children with an equal, if separate, educational opportunity. One of the basic elements of my vast good fortune was that I was among that tiny handful of black children born in 1932 whose parents gave them an unqualified expectation that they would go to college. College for me would be the University of Minnesota and under the law, Missouri would have to pay our family the difference between the cost of my attending Minnesota rather than Missouri.

Contemplate the messages of that policy for a moment. My parents, Minnesota loyalists, figured that Missouri was going to finance a finer education for me than it could possibly provide, so they were pleased at the prospect of beating the system. I, of course, had heard many tales of Minneapolis' beauty, the 10,000 lakes, the winter sports and the friendly Scandinavians. It seemed terrific to me that Missouri was going to pay for me to retrace my parents' steps in this wonderland. The separate but equal college plan was simply one more demonstration of the stupidity and ultimate unworkability of segregation.

On a deeper level, the back-snapping convolutions of the program were reassuring. The country was hooked on the idea of equality. Even though the primary message of the program -- that I wasn't good enough to attend the University of Missouri -- was clear, the contradictions were encouraging. The idea of equality was so dear to America that we blacks had traction and room to struggle.

That was the state of my expectations before the popular culture really took hold of me. Nuclear weapons and intercontinental delivery systems did not exist, so we could contemplate domestic reconstruction without the hindrance of national security obsessions. International economic competition didn't exist as a problem. Many Americans thought of the nation as an impregnable island, immune even to European political upheavals. Though they clearly existed in 1941, I did not yet understand scarcity or the inefficiencies of our economic system and how intimately those inefficiencies were tied to the fate of black people. The nationwide respect given to Marian Anderson and Joe Louis gave some promise that loathing of blacks need not be universal. In our family, we had a Model A Ford, but in Life magazine, I had seen the futuristic designs displayed at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. I believed in continued on page 86

Then, in late 1941 -- the year we moved to Harlem -- when I was almost 10, the United States entered World War II, and I started attending movies regularly. Those two experiences took every good thing I believed about America and inflated it to epic size in my psyche.

War propaganda and the movies of that era were geared to the workings of 10-year-old minds. There were no shades of gray in that war. America was good and democratic, and the other guys were bad and dictatorial, and good was inevitably winning over evil. I believed in all those wonderful guys jammed by war into the same foxholes -- the voluble Brooklyn Jew, the laconic Texan, the starry-eyed Iowan. I had no doubt that the laws of justice worked as inexorably as the laws of gravity and that Hitler and Tojo and Mussolini would inevitably be crushed. And I knew that that wonderful, decent, open, loving, honorable, sophisticated, hick, adorable, sexy and democratic way of life that I saw portrayed on the screen every Saturday at the Loews Rio would prevail and provide the light of the world.

Ironically, the higher the war propaganda pushed the United States in my estimation, the more deeply I felt the pain of inequality. The pain was so deep and so broad, it was virtually a cliche' in black America. The army that fought to make the world safe for democracy was segregated. German POWs were treated better in the South than black GIs. White American soldiers fighting their way across France and Germany would tell European women that black American soldiers had yellow stripes running down their backs (many black GIs were said to have gotten good mileage out of the curiosity about that stripe). Black workers laboring at the core of the "arsenal of democracy" could not live near the workers with whom they shared their labors and their patriotism.

On the home front, the knife was turned, too. In those days Fifth Avenue was a two-way street, and the No. 2 double-decker bus ran from way downtown all the way up to 160th Street and Edgecombe Avenue, where we lived. My mother and I would sit on the top deck, and we could see in some apartment windows along the grand avenue facing the park. The rooms in the apartments were all elegant, and the people were all white. Once I heard a white man say:

"After the 90s, there'll be nothing but niggers on this bus."

My mother's face turned to stone. My 11-year-old heart murdered the man -- not once, but hundreds of times. Usually, though, nothing happened on that bus ride except that it deepened the knowledge in my child's mind that the rest of America was wildly glamorous and happy and excluded us, while the places the bus went where we lived -- up Seventh Avenue above Central Park and beyond -- were unfairly crammed full of poverty, misery and pain. I thought America ought to be big enough and strong enough to have glamour and happiness for everyone.

BUILDING DREAMS ON THE POWER AND ingenuity of America was, of course, far easier than designing the programs and mounting the politics necessary to counter millions of daily reflexive and unconscious individual and institutional acts of racism that made up the warp and woof of American life and culture. But the full and awful truths about the complexity and universality of the human instinct for racial dominance were kept deep in the mists. I could not see them because of the clarity of life in the foreground. And after the war, in the foreground was a truly wondrous and profoundly American event: the integration of major league baseball.

You had to be there to know what major league baseball was to America in 1947. The hunger for real baseball after the diluted product of the war years, when the stars were in the service, was enormous. The idea of dominance was entirely encompassed by Bob Feller's rockets from the mound; of grace by Joe DiMaggio outrunning a drive to deepest left center; and of mastery by Stan Musial uncoiling line drives to all fields against all comers. And the best part of it all was that it was all on radio. So you had to imagine it as you heard it, and there wasn't much difference, really, between that "reality" and what went on in your head as you bounced a tennis ball endlessly against the front steps. Of course, all the players were white. There was no NBA with Magic Johnson and no NFL with Walter Payton. There was just Dixie Walker and Enos Slaughter and Ted Williams and Bobby Bragan and Red Schoendienst and them. All white. I, myself, bouncing the tennis ball against the steps was often Joe (Flash) Gordon playing second for the 1941 Yankees alongside Phil Rizzuto.

White people, of course, tried to give the impression that nobody could play the game as well as they. The games in the Negro leagues, which I occasionally had been taken to, did not have the shine and the polish of the "big leagues." So the product and the players were said by white people -- and the kinds of Negroes who believed everything white people had to say -- to be inferior. I wasn't so sure about that because I had once seen Satchel Paige pitch, and, more to the point, I had heard grown black men talk about the speed of Paige's fastball -- unseeable when Satch was on, it was said. "They" wouldn't integrate baseball because "they" couldn't hit Satch, it was said. On days I wasn't Joe Gordon, I was Satchel Paige. I knew it was a rotten shame that they kept him out of the big leagues.

The integration of baseball 40 years ago had all the elements required to make the constitutional promise come true. It had a good white man, a noble black man, an opportunity granted and a fabulous success achieved against great odds, and it was all played out on the nation's biggest stage in the center of her broadest fantasy. By deciding to integrate the major leagues, Branch Rickey proved the good I had intuited in white people from observing Franklin Roosevelt. In choosing Jackie Robinson, Rickey could not possibly have picked a more perfect hero. He was simply a superb athlete, a fierce competitor, a disciplined human being and an intelligent man. I could not have dreamed the story better. Forty years later, I still cannot improve upon it. By his daily demeanor and ability, Robinson destroyed layer after layer of the slurs leveled at black people about our abilities, our character, our intelligence and our courage.

White people who didn't want to think about black people suddenly had to think about us because they couldn't not think about baseball. In a sense, Rickey and Robinson were a civil rights movement unto themselves. They changed not only baseball, but the racial consciousness of the nation. They surely diminished the doubts that had lingered in my mind about the perfectability of man and the United States of America.

And in 1948 in Briggs Stadium in Detroit, I finally got to see Satchel Paige pitch in a major league game. I don't remember how it came out, just that he was able to throw the ball past some white players even though by then he was very old to be playing baseball. THERE IS, HOWEVER, SOMETHING MISleading about the spiritual, constitutional odyssey that I have sketched out here. I was, indeed, a lucky child who had ample reason to be optimistic about myself and my country. But growing up black -- even in circumstances as favored as mine -- was not without its costs. The popular culture that celebrated America celebrated all things white and beautiful. There was very little celebration of blacks. Most of the brief appearances permitted us lacked all grace and dignity, which is one of the reasons Robinson filled us with such pride. We were generally portrayed as inept and subservient buffoons.

Nor did popular culture often show us such pinched and desolated white lives as those Cyra McFadden describes her aunts and uncles living in her marvelous family memoir Rain or Shine. We were more likely to see Robert Taylor hop into a cab on Madison Avenue on his way to some sophisticated appointment. If Lana Turner wasn't at the end of that cab ride, then Rita Hayworth surely was. You can bet that nobody who looked like our mothers and fathers or brothers and sisters was hopping into those cabs and embracing in those elegant drawing rooms. White people ran everything and owned everything, and because of that, they shaped all our fantasies, too. Beyond making it impossible for some blacks to earn a decent living -- or in some cases, any living whatsoever -- the worst thing America did was to imprison our psyches inside the white dream about what America was and what we were and ought to be.

Inside that intellectual prison, I could only perceive the outside dimly. The vision of Constitutional promise I had fashioned by my teen-age years was a twisted thing, filtered through white imaginations and full of contradictory emotions. If America really was as good as I had been told it was -- and if it had been made by whites with blacks just along for the ride and to serve whites -- then we blacks probably were inferior, as the culture and individual white people kept telling us. Yet America still seemed to offer us a chance for equality.

As I grew up I learned that the offer was only for some of us. And it was a limited offer at that -- a chance to try to fit in. We had to perfect ourselves in order to be worthy to receive this opportunity. Those of us who could glimpse the possibility understood two things: that we were deemed "exceptional" and that we were to be passive recipients of this grace and were not to attempt to make large waves. White people were not to be told about their own imperfections or reminded too insistently about the shortcomings of their country.

When I moved to Grand Rapids, Mich., as a teen-ager and lived among white people, I found that for me, the constitutional promise was near at hand. I soon learned that part of my success in high school, both academically and socially, was due to the fact that I was more civilized and smarter than the stereotype of black people whites in the north end of Grand Rapids carried in their heads. A toothless old white woman whom my mother hired to keep the house clean eagerly relayed a meaningful "compliment" that one of her poor neighbors -- a pretty classmate -- had paid me.

"Shirley says Roger knows his place," the woman told my mother.

The promise, then, was for exceptional blacks, those of us who were neat and tidy and smart and respectful. If we behaved properly we would be permitted to pass through doors that no other blacks had ever seen. You could tell yourself that you, like Jackie Robinson, were going to move the race by breaking down barriers and demonstrating that blacks could do things that white people hadn't believed us capable of doing. You could tell yourself that. But, even so, the price was surely high. One would always have to remain the grateful, passive recipient in order for the passage to be smooth.

After the three years of agreed-upon restraint, Robinson was set free to be the fully combative person he truly was. From that point on, he took nothing from anybody. For his troubles, this brilliant, competitive man was never considered for a managerial job. He had become uppity. He was dismissed contemptuously by Walter O'Malley, owner of the Dodgers: "Robinson can't manage himself. How can he manage other men?"

I believe that Robinson and the integration of baseball improved the climate for the constitutional attack that Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP legal staff launched against legally segregated schools. I was in high school when the cases, which were decided under the name Brown v. Board of Education, began making their way up toward the Supreme Court. When the court ultimately made its unanimous decision that separate but equal education was unconstitutional, some of America's racial fiction began to disintegrate. But it was still law throughout the South and in many border states when I was in high school in Grand Rapids and in college in Ann Arbor.

As a mark of my "exceptionalness," I had been elected president of the student council in my nearly all-white high school. And when I was in college the possibilities open to acceptable blacks were confirmed for me. I was elected president of my senior class at the University of Michigan. Though I knew that violence undergirded the segregation laws of the South and that economic discrimination lay at the heart of the northern black experience, I could still hope that individual breakthroughs by the leading edge of the black population could bring about wholesale changes as they then appeared to have done in baseball.

Though I did not know it at the time, the jubilation that attended the Supreme Court's decision in Brown marked the end of my period of maximum innocence. After that decision, the South would rise up in systemic defiance and widespread violence. Lawyers would lie, pastors would equivocate, parents would inflict permanent psychic damage on other peoples' children who had dark skin, and the president of the United States would not speak up on behalf of the Constitution, the laws, the court and victimized citizens. I began to see the outlines of the limits that both the system and human beings would impose on my earlier ideals of constitutional promise.

The Brown decision would give blacks a glimpse of the glorious possibilities of struggle and change. Some of the noblest deeds and most decent advances in our domestic history were to flow from the forces unleashed by that decision. But a darker reality lay silently across the northern landscape. It was missed by those who focused solely on the South. Southern violence, ugliness, gallantry and grit filled up the foreground, and the nation was mesmerized by accounts of daily, monthly and annual struggles to cast off the fetid layers of Jim Crow skin left over from slavery. But to any who looked, the future of America -- and the limits of constitutional promise -- were evident in the North, where cold racism and economic custom imprisoned the vast majority of blacks in a region where the civic amenities that whites and blacks were dying to achieve in the South had been formally on the books for years. When the southern struggle was won, the whole country would be the North.

When the Brown decision was announced on May 17, 1954, I was in my freshman year at the University of Michigan Law School. I was 22 years old. It would be three years before I would go to work in the black slums of Cleveland and 11 before President Johnson would send me to work among the smoldering embers of Watts. It would be eight years before the schools of Norfolk, Va., would be integrated, so my future wife -- a junior high school student in 1954 -- graduated from a still-segregated high school, thoroughly disillusioned. Martin Luther King was an unknown 25-year-old. He had just under 14 more years to live. It would be just over 14 years before King's Poor People's Campaign would descend on the Mall in Washington and begin the fundamental probe to find out just how big the promise of the Constitution really was and to whom it was extended.

When the decision was announced, some of my white classmates came up and shook my hand and congratulated me.

I thanked them. :: progress -- in product design and in human relations.

Then, in late 1941 -- the year we moved to Harlem -- when I was almost 10, the United States entered World War II, and I started attending movies regularly. Those two experiences took every good thing I believed about America and inflated it to epic size in my psyche.

War propaganda and the movies of that era were geared to the workings of 10-year-old minds. There were no shades of gray in that war. America was good and democratic, and the other guys were bad and dictatorial, and good was inevitably winning over evil. I believed in all those wonderful guys jammed by war into the same foxholes -- the voluble Brooklyn Jew, the laconic Texan, the starry-eyed Iowan. I had no doubt that the laws of justice worked as inexorably as the laws of gravity and that Hitler and Tojo and Mussolini would inevitably be crushed. And I knew that that wonderful, decent, open, loving, honorable, sophisticated, hick, adorable, sexy and democratic way of life that I saw portrayed on the screen every Saturday at the Loews Rio would prevail and provide the light of the world.

Ironically, the higher the war propaganda pushed the United States in my estimation, the more deeply I felt the pain of inequality. The pain was so deep and so broad, it was virtually a cliche' in black America. The army that fought to make the world safe for democracy was segregated. German POWs were treated better in the South than black GIs. White American soldiers fighting their way across France and Germany would tell European women that black American soldiers had yellow stripes running down their backs (many black GIs were said to have gotten good mileage out of the curiosity about that stripe). Black workers laboring at the core of the "arsenal of democracy" could not live near the workers with whom they shared their labors and their patriotism.

On the home front, the knife was turned, too. In those days Fifth Avenue was a two-way street, and the No. 2 double-decker bus ran from way downtown all the way up to 160th Street and Edgecombe Avenue, where we lived. My mother and I would sit on the top deck, and we could see in some apartment windows along the grand avenue facing the park. The rooms in the apartments were all elegant, and the people were all white. Once I heard a white man say:

"After the 90s, there'll be nothing but niggers on this bus."

My mother's face turned to stone. My 11-year-old heart murdered the man -- not once, but hundreds of times. Usually, though, nothing happened on that bus ride except that it deepened the knowledge in my child's mind that the rest of America was wildly glamorous and happy and excluded us, while the places the bus went where we lived -- up Seventh Avenue above Central Park and beyond -- were unfairly crammed full of poverty, misery and pain. I thought America ought to be big enough and strong enough to have glamour and happiness for everyone. BUILDING DREAMS ON THE POWER AND ingenuity of America was, of course, far easier than designing the programs and mounting the politics necessary to counter millions of daily reflexive and unconscious individual and institutional acts of racism that made up the warp and woof of American life and culture. But the full and awful truths about the complexity and universality of the human instinct for racial dominance were kept deep in the mists. I could not see them because of the clarity of life in the foreground. In the foreground was a truly wondrous and profoundly American event: the integration of major league baseball.

You had to be there to know what major league baseball was to America in 1947. The hunger for real baseball after the diluted product of the war years, when the stars were in the service, was enormous. The idea of dominance was entirely encompassed by Bob Feller's rockets from the mound; of grace by Joe DiMaggio outrunning a drive to deepest left center; and of mastery by Stan Musial uncoiling line drives to all fields against all comers. And the best part of it all was that it was all on radio. So you had to imagine it as you heard it, and there wasn't much difference, really, between that "reality" and what went on in your head as you bounced a tennis ball endlessly against the front steps. Of course, all the players were white. There was no NBA with Magic Johnson and no NFL with Walter Payton. There was just Dixie Walker and Enos Slaughter and Ted Williams and Bobby Bragan and Red Schoendienst and them. All white. I, myself, bouncing the tennis ball against the steps was often Joe (Flash) Gordon playing second for the 1941 Yankees alongside Phil Rizzuto.

White people, of course, tried to give the impression that nobody could play the game as well as they. The games in the Negro leagues, which I occasionally had been taken to, did not have the shine and the polish of the "big leagues." So the product and the players were said by white people -- and the kinds of Negroes who believed everything white people had to say -- to be inferior. I wasn't so sure about that because I had once seen Satchel Paige pitch, and, more to the point, I had heard grown black men talk about the speed of Paige's fastball -- unseeable when Satch was on, it was said. "They" wouldn't integrate baseball because "they" couldn't hit Satch, it was said. On days I wasn't Joe Gordon, I was Satchel Paige. I knew it was a rotten shame that they kept him out of the big leagues.

The integration of baseball 40 years ago had all the elements required to make the constitutional promise come true. It had a good white man, a noble black man, an opportunity granted and a fabulous success achieved against great odds, and it was all played out on the nation's biggest stage in the center of her broadest fantasy. By deciding to integrate the major leagues, Branch Rickey proved the good I had intuited in white people from observing Franklin Roosevelt. In choosing Jackie Robinson, Rickey could not possibly have picked a more perfect hero. He was simply a superb athlete, a fierce competitor, a disciplined human being and an intelligent man. I could not have dreamed the story better. Forty years later, I still cannot improve upon it. By his daily demeanor and ability, Robinson destroyed layer after layer of the slurs leveled at black people about our abilities, our character, our intelligence and our courage.

White people who didn't want to think about black people suddenly had to think about us because they couldn't not think about baseball. In a sense, Rickey and Robinson were a civil rights movement unto themselves. They changed not only baseball, but the racial consciousness of the nation. They surely diminished the doubts that had lingered in my mind about the perfectability of man and the United States of America.

And in 1948 in Briggs Stadium in Detroit, I finally got to see Satchel Paige pitch in a major league game. I don't remember how it came out, just that he was able to throw the ball past some white players even though by then he was very old to be playing baseball. THERE IS, HOWEVER, SOMETHING MISleading about the spiritual, constitutional odyssey that I have sketched out here. I was, indeed, a lucky child who had ample reason to be optimistic about myself and my country. But growing up black -- even in circumstances as favored as mine -- was not without its costs. The popular culture that celebrated America celebrated all things white and beautiful. There was very little celebration of blacks. Most of the brief appearances permitted us lacked all grace and dignity, which is one of the reasons Robinson filled us with such pride. We were generally portrayed as inept and subservient buffoons.

Nor did popular culture often show us such pinched and desolated white lives as those Cyra McFadden describes her aunts and uncles living in her marvelous family memoir Rain or Shine. We were more likely to see Robert Taylor hop into a cab on Madison Avenue on his way to some sophisticated appointment. If Lana Turner wasn't at the end of that cab ride, then Rita Hayworth surely was. You can bet that nobody who looked like our mothers and fathers or brothers and sisters was hopping into those cabs and embracing in those elegant drawing rooms. White people ran everything and owned everything, and because of that, they shaped all our fantasies, too. Beyond making it impossible for some blacks to earn a decent living -- or in some cases, any living whatsoever -- the worst thing America did was to imprison our psyches inside the white dream about what America was and what we were and ought to be.

Inside that intellectual prison, I could only perceive the outside dimly. The vision of Constitutional promise I had fashioned by my teen-age years was a twisted thing, filtered through white imaginations and full of contradictory emotions. If America really was as good as I had been told it was -- and if it had been made by whites with blacks just along for the ride and to serve whites -- then we blacks probably were inferior, as the culture and individual white people kept telling us. Yet America still seemed to offer us a chance for equality.

As I grew up I learned that the offer was only for some of us. And it was a limited offer at that -- a chance to try to fit in. We had to perfect ourselves in order to be worthy to receive this opportunity. Those of us who could glimpse the possibility understood two things: that we were deemed "exceptional" and that we were to be passive recipients of this grace and were not to attempt to make large waves. White people were not to be told about their own imperfections or reminded too insistently about the shortcomings of their country.

When I moved to Grand Rapids, Mich., as a teen-ager and lived among white people, I found that for me, the constitutional promise was near at hand. I soon learned that part of my success in high school, both academically and socially, was due to the fact that I was more civilized and smarter than the stereotype of black people whites in the north end of Grand Rapids carried in their heads. A toothless old white woman whom my mother hired to keep the house clean eagerly relayed a meaningful "compliment" that one of her poor neighbors -- a pretty classmate -- had paid me.

"Shirley says Roger knows his place," the woman told my mother.

The promise, then, was for exceptional blacks, those of us who were neat and tidy and smart and respectful. If we behaved properly we would be permitted to pass through doors that no other blacks had ever seen. You could tell yourself that you, like Jackie Robinson, were going to move the race by breaking down barriers and demonstrating that blacks could do things that white people hadn't believed us capable of doing. You could tell yourself that. But, even so, the price was surely high. One would always have to remain the grateful, passive recipient in order for the passage to be smooth.

After the three years of agreed-upon restraint, Robinson was set free to be the fully combative person he truly was. From that point on, he took nothing from anybody. For his troubles, this brilliant, competitive man was never considered for a managerial job. He had become uppity. He was dismissed contemptuously by Walter O'Malley, owner of the Dodgers: "Robinson can't manage himself. How can he manage other men?"

I believe that Robinson and the integration of baseball improved the climate for the constitutional attack that Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP legal staff launched against legally segregated schools. I was in high school when the cases, which were decided under the name Brown v. Board of Education, began making their way up toward the Supreme Court. When the court ultimately made its unanimous decision that separate but equal education was unconstitutional, some of America's racial fiction began to disintegrate. But it was still law throughout the South and in many border states when I was in high school in Grand Rapids and in college in Ann Arbor.

As a mark of my "exceptionalness," I had been elected president of the student council in my nearly all-white high school. And when I was in college the possibilities open to acceptable blacks were confirmed for me. I was elected president of my senior class at the University of Michigan. Though I knew that violence undergirded the segregation laws of the South and that economic discrimination lay at the heart of the northern black experience, I could still hope that individual breakthroughs by the leading edge of the black population could bring about wholesale changes as they then appeared to have done in baseball.

Though I did not know it at the time, the jubilation that attended the Supreme Court's decision in Brown marked the end of my period of maximum innocence. After that decision, the South would rise up in systemic defiance and widespread violence. Lawyers would lie, pastors would equivocate, parents would inflict permanent psychic damage on other people's children who had dark skin, and the president of the United States would not speak up on behalf of the Constitution, the laws, the court and victimized citizens. I began to see the outlines of the limits that both the system and human beings would impose on my earlier ideals of constitutional promise.

The Brown decision would give blacks a glimpse of the glorious possibilities of struggle and change. Some of the noblest deeds and most decent advances in our domestic history were to flow from the forces unleashed by that decision. But a darker reality lay silently across the northern landscape. It was missed by those who focused solely on the South. Southern violence, ugliness, gallantry and grit filled up the foreground, and the nation was mesmerized by accounts of daily, monthly and annual struggles to cast off the fetid layers of Jim Crow skin left over from slavery. But to any who looked, the future of America -- and the limits of constitutional promise -- were evident in the North, where cold racism and economic custom imprisoned the vast majority of blacks in a region where the civic amenities that whites and blacks were dying to achieve in the South had been formally on the books for years. When the southern struggle was won, the whole country would be the North.

When the Brown decision was announced on May 17, 1954, I was in my freshman year at the University of Michigan Law School. I was 22 years old. It would be three years before I would go to work in the black slums of Cleveland and 11 before President Johnson would send me to work among the smoldering embers of Watts. It would be eight years before the schools of Norfolk, Va., would be integrated, so my future wife -- a junior high school student in 1954 -- graduated from a still-segregated high school, thoroughly disillusioned. Martin Luther King was an unknown 25-year-old. He had just under 14 more years to live. It would be just over 14 years before King's Poor People's Campaign would descend on the Mall in Washington and begin the fundamental probe to find out just how big the promise of the Constitution really was and to whom it was extended.

When the decision was announced, some of my white classmates came up and shook my hand and congratulated me.

I thanked them. ::