HE WAS 26 YEARS OLD when he made that first speech -- or at least the first one that most of us knew about, if we happened to be white and didn't happen to live in Montgomery, Ala.

I was nine years old and lived in Mobile, and even at that age, there was simply no way that I could have missed it. As Martin Luther King Jr. mounted his Baptist pulpit on Dec. 5, 1955, his ostensible mission was to galvanize support for a bus boycott -- a protest with demands so modest they are almost startling today.

But by the time the night was over, and the cameras had recorded the event, all of us knew that there was far more at stake than guarantees that blacks -- who were still willing to continue to sit in the back of the bus -- would not have to give up their seats in the middle of the bus to white riders as the bus became full.

Imbedded in the majestic sweep and hypnotic cadence of his Dec. 5 sermon were unmistakable intimations of a shredded status quo -- of the Southern way of life radically recast, with blacks leading the way on the road to redemption.

All of those prospects, unsettling as they were to white Alabamians, were compounded at the time by the brashness of his certitude: "If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong . . . . If we are wrong, justice is a lie."

We had no way of knowing that earlier in the afternoon, with time running out for the preparation of his speech, King had been so overwhelmed by the weight of his doubts, his sense of inadequacy for the task that lay ahead, that he put his trembling pen aside and simply prayed that God would help him find the words.

Such images were invisible to the white people of the South. We saw only impudence of the most dangerous kind, and for almost all of us -- however urgently we would prefer to claim otherwise -- our initial reactions were rage and often hatred.

In retrospect, the fire hoses, church-bombings and snarling attack dogs -- even King's own murder -- combined to make a vivid point: His effect on white Southerners for nearly all his public life was to call up the worst that was in us, even as he appealed to the best.

His genius was to know that the collision was necessary, and his prophetic leap of faith -- which made it so impossible for the world to dismiss him -- was to believe despite the evidence that the best would finally win.

It is not clear, I suppose, that the victory is complete. But in the South especially -- where King's movement began, and where it had its greatest impact -- there are bits and pieces of modern history to vindicate his faith. One of them is the story of the city where I have lived and worked since 1972, Charlotte, N.C.

Charlotte is a city set free by King and his movement.

King spent only a small amount of time here but his disciples were active indeed. Perhaps the most important of those followers in Charlotte, from the vantage point of today, was a black Presbyterian minister named Darius Swann. Swann saw King as an American Gandhi -- an image that had special meaning for him since Swann had been a missionary in India starting in 1953.

Darius Swann and his young wife, Vera, didn't make the connection right away between Gandhi's non-violent revolution in India and what might be possible in their own native land. Only later, as they pored over Time magazine's account of the Montgomery boycott, were they struck by the promise of the tactic for America. If only, they said, a man of Gandhi's vision could emerge in America.

When they returned to Charlotte in 1964, they were convinced that King was that man, and they shared -- perhaps even more fully than many of King's other followers -- a belief that white America was capable of redemption.

The Swanns had once believed that whites were afflicted with some generic moral defect -- some character flaw that pervaded a whole race of people and led its members naturally in the direction of oppression. But now after 10 years in India living and working with white missionaries, the Swanns concluded that this might not be true: that whites, if removed from the system, the institution, the old habits of racism, might be capable of humanity after all.

In Charlotte, they became active in voter-registration drives for King's organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They protested segregation in athletic events, sought better wages for domestic servants, and filed a lawsuit against the city's public schools.

The suit, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, became the most important of their efforts, for after six years of languishing in the federal court system, it emerged suddenly in 1970 as the national test case for busing.

In that year, U.S. District Judge James McMillan ordered Charlotte's officials to eliminate all racially identifiable public schools, using busing as a tool, and during the next school year the Supreme Court upheld him.

In other parts of America, busing is often viewed as a failure -- not only by the traditional resisters to the cause of integration, but by many black leaders and white liberals as well. In Charlotte, however, the story was very different, and the city became a kind of national proving ground -- a high-stakes experiment -- in Martin Luther King's understanding of change.

In the beginning, the instincts for ugliness rose quickly to the surface. Howling mobs of white protestors regularly assembled at the school system's headquarters. They hanged Judge McMillan in effigy and threatened his life, and they burned down the offices of attorney Julius Chambers, who had represented the Swanns.

During the first three years after the buses began to roll, every high school in Charlotte was closed at least once because of racial fighting, and it seemed for awhile as if the tension would never end.

Through it all, however, there were citizens who argued the case for integration, and in the fatigue that came on the other side of turmoil, a different kind of consensus began to emerge.

"I think people came to see," says school superintendent Jay Robinson, "that they could either try to make integration work or see the public schools destroyed."

The change began almost unintentionally, as whites from the most heavily bused parts of the city -- many of them the residents of working class neighborhoods -- slowly and subtly began to alter their outcries, moving from an outright denunciation of busing to demands for a fairer and more stable plan: a more equitable distribution of the inconvenience of change.

Gradually, a different generation of leaders stepped forward: Bruce Patterson, a truck driver from a north Charlotte suburb; Cloyd Goodrum, a math professor at the local university; Floyd Berrier, a Methodist minister from a working class church; Maggie Ray, an upper-middle-class housewife from an old Charlotte family. These were grass-roots leaders with no official standing, nothing to give them power or influence except a growing sense of hope -- an ability to peer into the future and imagine how the schools might function if the people of Charlotte really embraced integration, rather than continuing the futile fight against it.

Out of that vision, a new consensus formed, and in the years since then Charlotte has fundamentally changed.

By almost any measure the schools are working well. White flight has been minor. It's been nearly 13 years since the last serious racial incident, and though the compulsion of a court order is no longer present, school officials have made yearly adjustments in the pupil assignment plan to maintain a high level of racial integration.

Parental involvement in schools -- which actually grew stronger during the anxious early years when busing first began -- has continued to improve, and standardized test scores to measure the students' progress have been on a steady path upward.

But the changes in Charlotte have not been limited to the public school system. Sam Smith, a Republican businessman and a neighborhood activist with a progressive agenda, believes the lawsuit filed by Darius Swann compelled the city to come to terms with the issue of race.

In the altered political climate that resulted, Smith forged a coalition with other neighborhood leaders -- some of them black and some of them white -- and in 1977, they pushed through a referendum to change Charlotte's form of government. An at-large city council, which was populated almost exclusively by white businessmen, gave way to a system of district representation.

In the eight years since, Charlotte has developed a vigorous, two-party democracy with power widely shared. The current city council includes six women, five men; six Democrats, five Republicans. The head of the city council is Jewish, and the mayor, Harvey Gantt, is black -- a civil rights pioneer and former neighborhood activist who defeated strong Republican candidates in 1983 and 1985, a year on either side of Ronald Reagan's landslide.

In a city where barely more than 20 percent of the voters are black, Gantt polled more than 60 percent of the total vote in 1985, campaigning on a platform that included the need for new taxes. "That really is remarkable," says Darius Swann.

And the sentiments tend to be the same among Charlotte's white leaders. Republican City Councilman Richard Vinroot puts it this way: "I would say that leaders in our city -- going back to Mayor Stan Brookshire in the 1960s -- listened to what Dr. King and his followers were saying and basically accepted their non-violent approach.

"I believe that same message was accepted by our school board in the 1970s and that we as a community decided that we would do what is right by our children -- that the survival of our schools and the fair treatment of people regardless of their color were more important than standing behind old ideas. And I believe in 1985 when a city in which more than 75 percent of the voters are white overwhelmingly elects a black man as mayor, that suggests we believe what Dr. King said in that greatest of all speeches about judging people by the content of their character.

"I met Dr. King when I was a college student. To me, he was almost a Christ in a different color skin. We are not there yet, in terms of what he preached. We still have problems of poverty that are linked to race, and we still need to push ahead aggressively in trying to deal with them.

"But I really do believe if Dr. King were alive today, he would look at Charlotte and say, 'That's what I had in mind.' "

I'm inclined to believe Richard Vinroot is right, and I would like to believe that Charlotte is not alone -- that the presence of Andrew Young as mayor of Atlanta and Richard Arrington as mayor of Birmingham, or the thousands of other black officials whose numbers have increased exponentially around the South, represent a sign of progress that cannot be reversed.

But we live in a time when the moral agenda of the nation is no longer defined by Martin Luther King. When Jesse Helms found himself trailing badly in the early stages of the North Carolina Senate race in 1984, he turned to the issue of the King holiday -- resurrecting the innuendo about King's communist inclinations. Other issues in the end were probably more central to Helms' victory, but the thinly veiled racial appeal didn't seem to hurt him.

It may be, then, that the morality play continues -- the collision between decency and its opposite that King helped induce. And it is certainly true that the problems of the American underclass -- the people for whom King was marching at the time of his murder -- are in many ways getting worse.

Thus there is a danger as we celebrate the King holiday, in Charlotte, North Carolina or anywhere else. It is the danger of excessive pride in the distance we have traveled and the tendency to sentimentalize a prophet safely dead.