Black thunderclouds keep filling the sky each afternoon, hanging above parched red fields laden with cotton, tantalizing quiet streets lined with live oaks. But the threatening storm seems never to materialize.

It has been that sort of summer, full of ominous and brooding anticipation. This is the summer Decatur would sooner forget.

It began May 23, when Tommy Lee Hines, 25, retarded and black, was picked up for loitering.

Within a matter of hours, Hines was charged with raping two white women earlier in the year and robbing one of them. A detective announced that Hines had confessed. A third charge of rape, also of a white woman, subsequently was filed against him. He has pleaded innocent to all of the charges, and is scheduled to stand trial Oct. 2.

People who knew Tommy Lee Hines said they were astonished. He was described as shy, polite, afraid of the dark. With an IQ of about 35, the equivalent of that of a 6-year-old, he was able to perform only simple tasks at a special school he attended daily.

His teachers said his mental capacity - and limited physical coordination - would have made it impossible for him to plan the abductions and drive his alleged victims' cars, one of which had manual transmission, through town.

The description of the attacker didn't seem to fit Tommy Lee Hines. No lineup was conducted. At a preliminary hearing, two of the three victims identified Hines as he sat in the courtroom. The third was unable to identify him.

A belief began to grow in Decatur that perhaps a mistake had been made when Hines was charged. Among blacks, who constitute 12 percent of the city's 40,000 residents, many were convinced that police had the wrong man. So were a number of whites.

Then, overnight, something happened: Tommy Lee Hines became A Cause. And, Decatur, which had eased into desegragation without the demonstrations that disrupted much of the Deep South, attracted the attention of outsiders and was thrown into turmoil.

Decatur is a city that defies stereotyping. Sprawling along the Tennessee River, it is closer to Cincinnati than New Orleans. There are striking contrasts and similarities to both cultures here.

City leaders, concerned about forging the broadest economic base, sought out major industries after World War II, and Decatur is now home to more than a dozen Fortune 500 company operations.

The arrival of General Motors, General Electric, Goodyear, Monsanto and others also meant the arrival of many northerners, who settled in and subtly helped alter the fabric of the city. Well-paying jobs became available, to blacks and whites alike.

Balanced against that, though, is a long history. Decatur was the site of the infamous Scottsboro Boys retrial, a case in the 1930s that placed a stigma on southern justice that has not been entirely erased by the passage of time.

In 1931, nine young Alabama blacks were arrested and charged with raping two white women. After a four-day trial in Scottsboro, eight were sentenced to die. The ninth, 14, was freed.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the verdict on the grounds that blacks had been excluded from jury service. A new trial was ordered and held in Decatur. The defendants were convicted again.

Now there is an unspoken fear here that four decades of work to create a new image for Decatur will be undone.

"We have come so far, and then this," Mayor Bill Dukes said. "I guess that's what hurts me most - my knowing that there's been no planned effort in this town to discriminate."

Shortly after Tommy Lee Hines' arrest, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) - at the request of local blacks - sent to Decatur the Rev. R. B. Cottonreader, who describes himself as a "consultant and strategizer." Until his arrival, Decatur blacks had never organized any activist group.

But under Cottonreader's direction, blacks demonstrated almost daily during June and July, occupying City Hall and the Morgan County Courthouse. In response, city officials adopted a "very, very tolerant attitude," according to Dukes.

"We kept telling them to tell us what they wanted, but the only thing they presented to me was that we drop the charges against Tommy Lee Hines," the mayor said. "I couldn't do that. The case was in the hands of the state. Cottonreader's smart. He knew that, but they kept asking."

Although the issue initially was freedom for Tommy Lee Hines, it broadened into more generalized demands for justice, jobs and equality, giving rise to claims by many, including some blacks, that Hines has been forgotten.

"That boy has been misused," said Stove Wynn, a lifelong friend of the Hines family.

"God is moving through Tommy Lee Hines," Cottonreader countered.

According to Hines' lawyer, the SCLC has done nothing to support the defense of his client.

"The SCLC needed an issue. They picked up Tommy Lee Hines. And they found a town that was ripe for plucking," said Henry Sanders Mims, a lawyer who was retained by an integrated group of Decatur residents.

Then, in July, the Ku Klux Klan arrived in Decatur "to give support for the judicial system."

"They were different from the SCLC only because they carried guns," said Mims. "By this time Tommy Lee Hines had been put on the back shelf while everybody else was concerned with 'how our membership will grow.'"

The KKK held two rallies in Decatur. Local residents were frightened, shocked and angry.

"I wanted to cry," said Dukes, who is highly regarded by both whites and blacks in the city. "None of us - black or white - would have believed it if last year someone had said this would happen. This city is being used."

One of the first legal actions taken by the 31-year-old Mims, on behalf of Hines, was to ask for a change of venue, contending that the pretrial publicity in Decatur would preclude a fair trial.

The judge agreed. He ordered the trial transferred to Cullman County, south of Decatur.

Until about 15 years ago, a sign was posted prominently on the main highway into the county, warning all blacks to be out of Cullman County by sunset. Today, there are only 120 blacks among the county's 36,000 inhabitants - and all of them live in a section known as "the Colony."

Mims has sought another change of venue, which was denied and is now being appealed. The SCLC has vowed to continue demonstrating. The Ku Klux Klan has pledged to return.

"Someday," Mims said, "the case of Tommy Lee Hines will finally be heard."