THIS IS A TALE of two mayors: Marion S. Barry's beginnings were in the cotton fields of Mississippi and Arkansas; Maynard H. Jackson, mayor of Atlanta, is the descendant of three generations of special men -- black preachers in the South.

Barry is a graduate of a small college in Memphis, Jackson is a wunderkind who graduated at age 18 from Morehouse College, a prep school for black leaders.

Their starting points divide, but their paths today converge -- they're members of an exclusive club of blacks who in the last decade have ascended to power as mayors of major American cities.

Yet despite their differences Barry and Jackson have a lot in common. Their penchant for sidestepping, for example, Maynard Jackson is the embattled mayor of Atlanta whose city has become synonymous with 25 dead or missing black children.He came to town Friday night to address the Ground Breaking Banquet of Metropolitan Baptist Church.

Those of who who went to the Sheraton-Washington hotel to get some sense of how the mayor feels about what is going on, what bottom line the wunderkind is placing on what is happening in his city, left with full stomachs and empty hearts.

In ringing, eloquent tones, he alluded only to the fact that his city, once a "Garden of Eden," was "troubled right now," and asked the church people to "send us your prayers because our children and therefore your children are under attack."

No insights into the series of child murders which has preoccupied his city and the country. No sharing of a heavy heart for a town whose name has become synonymous with child murder, a city whose pain has moved a lot of Washingtonians to wear ribbons of red, green and black.

It has been Atlanta, in fact, that has led to the two mayors' convergence on the point of sidestepping sensitive issues. In commenting about the killings of the Atlanta children, Mayor Barry was quoted as saying that the federal government would have moved much more swiftly and decisively had the victims been white, and then, later amplified that statement by saying more would have been done had the victims been Jewish.

Some Washingtonians complained that the mayor had later refused to elaborate or apologize for the remark. So I called Mayor Barry Friday to see if he would reconsider his silence on the subject. He declined, saying that to speak to the past would reopen a "divisive" debate that the city doesn't need, especially because the city's "Jewish leadership has decided to try to put it to rest."

Barry's remark was puzzling to me because I don't think his statement is any more true of Jewish Americans than of any other nonblack group. But I think he singled out Jews because that is a usual analogy that blacks of a certain generation draw. It says something about the power of Jews in our society and is meant not as an offense but as a form of admiration, a recognition by blacks that despite relatively small numbers Jews have accomplished much.

In fact, Maynard Jackson, drew upon a similar analogy in his talk. On a 1971 trip to Israel, he said, he observed photographs of concentration camps and plaques at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Moved to tears, Jackson asked the guide why such disturbing memorabilia were displayed. Jackson said he was told it was not to move Jews to hatred but to remind them never to let it happen again. The audience of largely middle-aged men and women, in their colorful pre-Easter spring dresses and shiny pressed hair, clapped and clapped at his words. His point: "Do not be deluded into believing you are free because you're not."

Maybe Jackson's sidestepping is his way of taking attention from his feelings of embarrassment, powerlessness and frustration because a black mayor heading an administration where the top law enforcement officers are black cannot protect black children.

These two black elected officials are particularly sensitive to the new dimensions of race, 1980s style. That includes the growing alienation between poor blacks, like the Atlanta children, and those who have "made it " -- like Barry and Jackson. Many officials like them have had uneven success in living up to the expectations of their black constituents to deliver tangible economic benefits.

They are rightly edgy about what this portends: if they can't deliver the goods they may be cast aside.

So the tale of two mayors ends as it began. Will Jackson really talk about the children except under direct questioning? Probably not. Will Mayor Barry's remark go away now? Probably not. For while they started at different places their paths converge today at the points of ambition and men on the way up never say more than they have to.