Neither came. Both are 21. Both are juniors in college. Both had their reasons.

At 6:30 a.m., my son rose with one thought --to win his 8 a.m. match in the annual Washington Tennis Association D.C. Open games. The match was being played a few hundred yards from the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, at the Hains Point courts.

All week the question had been a thorn in our sides: was he or was he not going to attend the march? The question irritated him. If his time allowed. Only if he was not exhausted. After all, he had heard them all at Morehouse College, the alma mater of Martin Luther King Jr. and now this young man's home away from home: MLK III, Maynard Jackson, Julian Bond--all graduates of Morehouse, the college where black men are not "judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Coretta King, too, for that matter, and Andrew Young and John Lewis, all frequent visitors. And Jesse? Yes, he too. All week, my son tried to quiet my anguish, by stating over and over, "Dr. King won't be at the march, Mom. You only think he will."

Across town, my niece also rose at 6:30 a.m. to get herself ready to return to the University of Virginia, home of the ultimate renaissance man who wrote 183 years ago: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." Martin Luther King and the march did not cross her young brilliant mind. Gathering together her personal belongings and fitting them all into a compact car was the dilemma gripping her mind.

So neither came. Neither understood that the two of them are both beneficiaries and bearers of the dream. They did not understand that 20 years earlier, traveling the roads to Morehouse College and the University of Virginia was a test of endurance and discipline, a denial of a person's dignity and self-worth as travelers were slapped across the face with "For White Only" signs boldly posted at every crossroad, diner, gas station, water fountain.

Neither understood that Dr. King's dream led to the opening of the voting booths that have made possible the election of black mayors in the state capitals of both Georgia and Virginia.

Neither understood the need to acknowledge those parts of the dream that have come true; that so many of the horrors of yesteryear--police brutality, segregated public schools and public accommodations, non-access to the most desirable private and public jobs--have all but disappeared or been outlawed.

Neither was willing to stand tall at the Lincoln Memorial and pledge to serve as foot soldiers in the army of young men and women who would further the rest of the dream.

Or maybe--just maybe--both understood what many of us who were there 20 years ago, and had returned 20 years later, did not.

That the march would not commemorate Martin Luther King, but would be an indecorous opportunity for diverse groups and individuals, each with a separate, myopic agenda, to abuse the privilege of being invited. That each speaker, jockeying for position, would utilize his allotted five minutes and all those extra he could muster, for self-promotion and selfish agendas: foreign policy, labor unions, women's rights, gay rights, presidential ambitions, disarmament, reduction in military spending . . .

That the call to march was a call under false pretense, a call to use a momentous occasion not to honor one man, Dr. King, but to discredit another, Ronald Reagan. That the call would become a highly political event, sort of a mock trial of the 1984 Democratic Convention.

That no central moral theme--most speakers did not even promote Dr. King's birthday as a national holiday--would evolve. That there would be no rallying call around social justice or equality of opportunity. That the march would not translate into any specific direcetion or unified effort, that each of us would leave as we had come--alone with personal agendas still tucked tightly in place under our middle-class belts.

That many of us would go away feeling we had been had. That the residue of the civil rights leadership has lost touch, has lost control and sold out in an effort to survive as leaders in the political arena.

That the failure of the convenors to print "For Believers Only" on the invitations resulted in a mockery of Dr. King's memory, and of those who came so far expecting so much.

My son and niece had no way of knowing this. And their reasons--or are they excuses?-- for choosing to stay away are not understood.

But I am haunted by my son's words, recited all week: "The 'King' won't be there, Mom. You only think he will."