Here's my nightmare: We'll wake up early in the new millennium to discover that affirmative action is dead -- killed not just by "angry white men" but by the opposition of the great American majority and the abandonment of the courts. And we won't have anything to show for it.

Nor will it be easy to mount an alternative drive for racial equality. Who would still have the energy to undertake a new strategy? What potential allies would be sufficiently free of race fatigue to join it?

There are those, I know, who will say just such a gloomy prognosis will hasten the abandonment of our most powerful tool for closing the various gaps between blacks and whites. All I can say is: We've been there before.

Black people pushed busing as the means by which we would improve our children's education. We assumed that white opposition to busing was in fact opposition to desegregation -- and indeed a good deal of it was. But not all. Some who really did believe there was value in neighborhood schools -- including the proximity that made extracurricular activities and parent involvement easier -- were accused of using the issue as a mask for opposition to desegregation.

We insisted on busing -- kept insisting on it after the combination of white abandonment and changing residential patterns meant the buses were hauling black children from black neighborhoods to schools that had become predominantly black. And when we saw that busing was bringing us neither the educational improvement we'd hoped for nor the racial integration we thought would be a side effect, we didn't have the energy to mount a new campaign to do something serious about our children's education -- didn't know how to think about doing so except by blaming white people.

What will we do about the income, education, wealth, health and other gaps that divide us when affirmative action has been abandoned -- and when we discover that it didn't accomplish much for our worse-off elements in the first place?

I begin with the assumption that we are not going to get far with a strategy whose fundamental fairness is not clear. One reason the civil rights movement was so powerful is that even its opponents were reduced to calling for moving more slowly, giving folks time to adjust. They simply could not put their hearts in an argument that the aims of the movement (desegregation of public facilities, personnel practices and voting booths, for instance) were wrong.

I don't believe affirmative action (at least in some of its permutations) is wrong. But I think the political majority and the courts are headed that way. What could we then undertake that would both benefit us and not trigger white opposition?

One thing comes to mind: Our children. All our children.

To return again to the civil rights revolution: The essence of that movement was the coming together of a range of activists and activities -- voter registration, freedom schools, sit-ins, freedom rides -- with an equally wide range of objectives. People kept on doing what they took as their personal priorities, but suddenly they were part of something a lot bigger.

And thousands of white Americans got involved -- first as interested observers, then as cheerleaders and finally as committed activists, even martyrs. The civil rights cause was their cause; it was America's cause.

I'm convinced it could happen that way with a new movement for children. Who could oppose building a better future for children? Who could fail to find a role to play in building that better future? Not all who joined such a crusade would spend their time on behalf of poor children of the inner cities. The children of the small towns and suburbs need help too. Isn't that the message we learned from such datelines as Littleton, Paducah and Jonesboro?

Suppose we could get a significant number of Americans committed to our children: to improving their education, their outlook, their attitudes. Some of us might find our niche in tutoring small children, others in mentoring teenagers. Some might work to transform the public schools, others to empower parents, still others to provide opportunities for children to get to know one another across the lines of race and class.

The huge plus is that one group's effort wouldn't have to be in opposition to that of any other group. I believe such an approach would come closer to producing the kinds of results we've been hoping for all along.