It may be the 100-degree heat that turned this normally tranquil Southern city topsy-turvy in the past few days: A former mayor is going to prison Friday, a former prosecutor was incarcerated today and a former governor--the only African American ever elected chief executive of a state--saluted a Confederate flag.

The otherwise unrelated actions weave their way into the fabric of a city that wants to be "the former capital of the Confederacy, yet the gateway to progress and a prosperous future," as City Manager Calvin Jamison put it the other day.

The events involve four of the city's more flamboyant public figures: former governor L. Douglas Wilder, former mayor Leonidas B. Young, former commonwealth's attorney Joseph D. Morrissey and City Council member Sa'ad El- Amin.

Wilder played his role last Friday. He was standing in a boat that was part of a procession dedicating the city's latest tourist attraction, the Canal Walk along the James River. The developers of the walk had just agreed to take down a portrait of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a historical display.

El-Amin, a gadfly activist long before his recent election to the council, had threatened to organize a protest over the general's portrait. "If Lee had won, I'd still be a slave," El-Amin said.

Thus, what had been planned as a celebration of civic pride turned into the latest national story about a city that has revered the losers in a century-old war and, in El-Amin's words, has "exposed a very unhealed wound" in the holy city of the Confederacy.

"The riverfront is supposed to represent a sparkling new chapter in Richmond history," observed Robert D. Holsworth, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University. "But all of a sudden, it turns out to be the same old story: Richmond arguing over its past."

Then came Wilder. From the boat, he saw a dozen or so Lee defenders, dressed in Confederate uniforms, who had draped a Confederate flag over a bridge.

The former governor, a grandson of slaves, snapped off a teasing salute to the stars-and-bars flag.

Wilder said his salute was meant "to diffuse the tension. . . . It stopped the taunts from hecklers. They were astonished."

But El-Amin said of Wilder's salute, "Either he is senile, or he's a damn fool or a buffoon."

Young and Morrissey were not involved in the portrait flap, but their incarcerations this week add to the sense of a city doomed to take "one step forward, two steps back," Holsworth said.

In 1995, Young, an African American, was elevated to the mayor's job by his fellow members of the City Council with the backing of some of the city's most prominent white business leaders. They hoped the charismatic preacher could bridge the gap between the largely poor African American community, 55 percent of the city's 210,000 residents, and white residents who are among the area's most affluent.

But Young, in his own words, was "dazzled by the heights" of his new position. He stole money from elderly parishioners, including one on her deathbed, to support a lavish lifestyle that included extra-marital affairs, prosecutors said.

Young is to serve two years in prison for mail fraud, obstructing justice and filing a false income tax return.

When Young needed a lawyer, he turned to the feisty Morrissey, the last white politician to unite enough white and black voters to win a citywide office as prosecutor.

Morrissey's term as prosecutor was tumultuous, climaxed by a fist fight with a defense lawyer, David P. Baugh, who went on to defeat him in the next election.

In private practice, Morrissey proved a little too feisty for a Chesterfield County judge. Morrissey began a 30-day sentence today, in the form of house arrest, as the result of a contempt of court citation. The judge had sentenced a Morrissey client to 15 years on a drug charge. Morrissey immediately told the judge the sentence was "outrageous . . . absolutely outrageous."

Morrissey could face federal prison as the result of his conviction in October on two counts of criminal contempt stemming from his representation of Joel Harris in a drug distribution case. Harris was a top aide to Young--and to Wilder, too, before they had a falling out.

Wilder, apparently ready to play peacemaker in the dispute over the Lee portrait, said that in Richmond, "There is far too much emphasis placed on the past." "I don't think we can obliterate history," Wilder said, "but we can't go forward if we are constantly reminded of the past."

Wilder would not respond to El-Amin, noting that he has refused to utter El-Amin's name since he represented Wilder's wife in a divorce action two decades ago. "He does not exist," Wilder said, repeating a phrase reserved for his most reviled enemies.

But both men recalled one bit of local history: Few who now argue that Lee's portrait should be displayed because of his place in city history used the same argument for another famous Richmonder three years ago. The issue then was whether to place a statue of Arthur Ashe, the late black tennis champion and city native, near those of Lee and other Confederate heroes on the city's Monument Avenue.

CAPTION: Former governor L. Douglas Wilder says his salute to the Confederate flag was done in jest.

CAPTION: City Council member Sa'ad El-Amin opposes the display of Gen. Robert E. Lee's portrait along Canal Walk.

CAPTION: Former mayor Leonidas B. Young is beginning a two-year prison term on mail fraud and other offenses.

CAPTION: Former commonwealth's attorney Joseph D. Morrissey is serving 30 days for contempt of court.