American history moves too quickly sometimes. Great causes born prematurely are swept away before their heroes ever get to wear their laurels.

So it was with Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, a champion of Louisiana politics in the last century who should be familiar to all Americans -- and particularly Californians -- this year, but is not.

Tom Bradley, mayor of Los Angeles, knows who P.B.S. Pinchback was. Bradley may become in November the first black man ever elected a governor of one of the United States. But he will not be the first black governor, for resting on a little footnote of history is Pinchback's flamboyant, restless ghost.

Pinchback, in the view of scholars such as Thomas J. Davis of Howard University, may have had little practical impact on the agenda of the 20th-century civil-rights movement that made careers like Tom Bradley's possible. But his life reveals the deep reserves of intelligence and determination that existed among black leaders only a few years after slavery, and how tragically wasted they were.

No two politicians could be more different than Bradley and Pinchback. Bradley today is 64, a tall, taciturn former police officer and lawyer with a reputation as an unfailingly honest -- and in all senses colorless -- politician. When Pinchback became acting governor of Louisiana in late 1872, he was only 35. He had only a year of high school, little experience other than as soldier, political organizer and steward befriended by river boat gamblers, and was a mercurial, bribe-taking charmer.

Yet both he and Bradley reflect the politics of their day, the take-no- chances, image politics of Bradley's 1980s and the no-holds-barred favor- trading of Pinchback's 1870s Reconstruction South.

Pinchback's father, white Mississippi planter William Pinchback, freed his mother, a mixed-blood slave named Eliza Stewart, and arranged for her and her children to go to Ohio after his death. But at age 12, Pinchback had to go to work to support his family.

On the river boats, he rose quickly to the rank of steward, a pinnacle for blacks in those days. Four prominent gamblers took him on as a body servant and in return explained the mysteries of monte, seven-up, poker and chuck-a-luck.

It was the beginning of a life dedicated to outwitting the rules. Pinchback even took election results against him as only a minor obstacle to be overturned by his energy, his organizational genius and his unquestioned devotion to the cause of blacks in the new South.

After 1867 in Louisiana and other southern states, blacks could vote but many whites who had supported the Confederacy could not. The situation was made to order for ambitious blacks like Pinchback and whites "carpetbaggers," who had come down from the north to help lead the resurgent Republican Party.

Historian Charles Vincent considers it significant that Pinchback involved himself so deeply as a black leader, for he was tall, light skinned, bearded and "visibly white in his appearance." "He was black because he wanted to be," Vincent said.

In April 1867 Pinchback organized the New Orleans 4th Ward Republican club. A series of official appointments came his way, including a place as delegate to the state constitutional convention. He drafted a civil rights article giving blacks equal rights with whites in public transportation and places of business.

Pinchback ran for the state senate and lost 899 to 819 to a white Democrat. He immediately challenged the result and the Republican-dominated state legislature ruled that the Democrats had stuffed the ballot box and that Pinchback should have the seat.

Ulysses S. Grant was president, presiding benignly over one of the most corrupt administrations in U.S. history. Officials in state governments like Louisiana's eagerly followed suit. State senators were often paid for their votes by certain business interests. Pinchback reportedly cashed a $1,000 note from a railroad baron after voting on a bill favorable to the man. He made much more than that buying and selling public land as an appointed park commissioner.

The extraordinary pressures of politics in a federally controlled state turned the Louisiana government into a two-headed monster. The black lieutenant governor, Oscar Dunn, Pinchback's most formidable rival, mounted an effort to impeach Pinchback's long-time ally, white carpetbagger Gov. Henry Clay Warmoth.

This fight would eventually produce rival state legislatures calling themselves to order in public halls and in rooms over casinos and jumping on trains to Washington to try to win federal blessing for their side. But at a crucial juncture, Dunn suddenly died of pneumonia and Warmoth managed to put his ally Pinchback into the lieutenant governor's chair.

For much of their careers Pinchback and Warmoth enjoyed an odd, symbiotic relationship. They sometimes traded personal properties and often traded votes and influence. But they had a falling out over the presidential election of 1872 leading to one of the great comic moments of the campaign, a frantic train race which Pinchback lost to Warmoth when an agent of the governor lured the lieutenant governor off his train with a fake telegram. Pinchback had been trying to sneak back to Louisiana from New York, where both men had been, so that he could sign some pro-Grant bills while Warmoth was out of the state.

Pinchback's term as governor, lasting only 43 days, was almost an anticlimax and certainly a fluke. Warmoth's enemies had managed to impeach him with just two months left in his term. Warmoth fought his expulsion but played by the rules. Others wrote to the new black governor in darker terms. "If you do not resign the office of acting governor within three dayssbeware, for on the fourth from this date you will be dead, stabbed to the heart" one letter said. Another was addressed to "Dead Beat Acting Governor Pinchbeck Sambo."

Pinchback left 10 new laws on the statute books, quelled the worst excesses of the two-headed government for a while and retired to make an unprecedented and unsuccessful simultaneous fight for a seat in either the U.S. Senate or the U.S. House of Representatives.

At 48, he returned to school and within a year had passed the state bar exam. He ended up moving to Washington where he practiced law and enjoyed a role as community leader until his death in 1921. To the end, he was either too tired or too clever ever to write a memoir on exactly how he had become such an interesting part of the history of his century, and in some ways of ours.