This is an Easter season story about Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Louis Jackson, two of the best known public figures of modern America. King was shot 20 years ago at 6:02 on the evening of April 4 as he stood on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. When he died, at age 39, he was a great and troubled man in a troubled country. Now he is a legend. Jackson was there when King was shot. He was 26 years old, the youngest among several disciples who were looking up to their leader, literally and figuratively, as they waited for him in the parking lot eight feet below. They were all going to dinner.

Hours after King died, Jackson flew back to Chicago, a city in flames, and the next day he spoke at a memorial session of the Chicago City Council. "I come here with a heavy heart because on my chest is the stain of blood from Dr. King's head," Jackson said. "He went through, literally, a crucifixion. I was there. And I'll be there for the resurrection."

It is said that history moves in 20-year cycles. Twenty years are up, and Jackson is running for the presidency. Did King die so that Jackson might someday rise? Is this the event that Jackson long ago prophesied? Jackson's speeches this year are rich with metaphors of the cross. He describes the suffering of the civil rights era -- King's death -- as the crucifixion; black enfranchisement represented the rolling back of the stone; and now, with Jackson's stunning political success this year, comes the resurrection. It is remarkable to think that Jackson first uttered those phrases he uses today the day after King died, when Jackson was so young, unknown and untested.

Biblical stories are rarely simple, and neither is this one. The relationship between King and Jackson is not divine. It is shrouded in myth, exaggeration, confusion, controversy, resentment. The two men knew each other for only three years -- from the voting rights march in Selma, Ala., in 1965 to the sanitation workers strike in Memphis in 1968 -- and they never were close. King, a humble and self-effacing person who stressed teamwork among his aides in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), thought young Jackson, director of his Chicago office, was too boastful, self-promoting and independent.

Some of the people closest to King -- his widow and several of his former top aides -- hold that assessment even now; to them, the day King died symbolizes their feelings.

They have had a hard time forgetting what Jackson said and did, or claimed to do, that day: how he claimed he was the last one King talked to before he was shot; how he told the press that he held the dying King in his hands; how he left so quickly for Chicago, saying that he felt ill; how he dominated the television interviews that day and the next day; how he kept wearing the turtleneck sweater that he said had King's blood on it; how even before King's funeral he was talking with advisers about the best way to take King's place as leader of the civil rights movement.

Most of those details are in dispute. There is no evidence that Jackson cradled King in his arms and substantial testimony that he did not. Ralph D. Abernathy, King's closest friend and adviser, did that. Jackson's immediate reaction after the shooting, according to his close friend and fellow Chicagoan, musician Ben Branch, who was standing in the parking lot with him, was not to run up to the balcony.

"And Jesse, he ducked, and went around behind the swimming pool," Branch, now dead, told an oral history interviewer in August 1968, according to documents at the J.W. Brister Library at Memphis State University.

Jackson eventually made it up to the balcony, and he might have come close enough to get some blood on his hands or shirt from the pool of blood on the floor. Whatever his reason for leaving for Chicago that night and missing an important SCLC meeting, it was not because he was sick. On the other hand, most testimony supports Jackson's recollection that he was one of the last people, if not the last person, who King talked to before he was shot. And reports about his discussions in Chicago about assuming King's role seem to have been exaggerated.

But for some, these actions taken together formed a lasting image of Jackson as a vainglorious person willing to stretch the truth. Andrew Young, now mayor of Atlanta, then a young King aide, says he has always been mystified by Jackson's account. Abernathy has tried to explain it by saying that Jackson had a burning need to be associated with King's glory. When Hosea Williams, King's field lieutenant, first heard Jackson claim that he cradled the dying King in his arms, he said it was only 45 minutes after the assassination. Williams, enraged, tried to attack Jackson in front of the television cameras with the thought of wrestling him to the ground and making him retract what he was saying.

Sixteen years later, Williams decided to forgive Jackson and went to Coretta Scott King to see whether she would do the same.

"I wanted to believe that Jesse had changed," Williams said. "I went to Mrs. King and tried to persuade her to support Jesse like I was. I said: 'I believe this is a new Jesse, not the overly ambitious young man we used to know.' She said: 'Hosea, Jesse Jackson has not changed one bit.' Now, I'm not sure. I think she might have been right."King's Staff Rivalry 'Was Intense'

"It is a grudge that just won't go away. It hasn't healed. They won't let it heal," said the Rev. Samuel (Billy) Kyles of Memphis, who was on the balcony with King when he was shot and who is the only witness whose statements partially support Jackson's version of events. "But people have to understand it wasn't just Jesse in this equation. The staff rivalry was intense, and it just blew apart after King died. There was tension between Mrs. King and the SCLC, between Hosea Williams and Andy Young, between Young and Jackson, between Abernathy and the younger ones. The whole thing was just so unfortunate."

David G. Garrow, author of the prize-winning book "Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference," agreed, saying that there was no reason to expect that King's team -- "a whole group of very different personalities" -- would hold together after his death. It was logical, he said, that Jackson became the common target at first.

"But the other thing, the least pretty part of it," Garrow said, "is the fact that people who were closest to King over many years' time believe quite correctly that King was an exceptionally humble and nonself-promoting person and they do not see in Jackson the degree of humility that they always saw in King. His actions on that day have come to represent that contrast."

Jackson no longer boasts about his actions on April 4, 1968. In private he vehemently questions the motives and qualifications of his detractors. In public he says that in times of trauma, such as the shooting, people remember things differently.

There is no doubt about that. Each witness to the shooting offered slightly different versions to the oral historians later that year. Jackson's version of events, not given to an oral historian, is that he spoke to King from the parking lot and that eventually he made it up to the balcony and held King for a brief time when Abernathy was doing something else, after King was dead. Jackson says that some people have misinterpreted his version, thinking that he had claimed that King spoke to him as he held him in his arms.

Only Hosea Williams denies that Jackson ever got to the balcony. But only Kyles says that Jackson held King. When asked about the various versions recently, Jackson said: "It happened the way I said it did. Go ask Billy Kyles."

During his oral history interviews in 1968, Kyles said Jackson was among those who ran to the balcony. He did not mention Jackson holding King. Last week, Kyles said:

"There was this controversy about Jesse getting blood. I've been trying to give the story straight for historical accuracy. Hosea says Jesse wasn't on the balcony. Of course he wasn't when he {King} was shot. But after a time they broke and ran for the balcony. There was blood everywhere, so everybody who was on the balcony conceivably had blood. Several of us handled him, not just Ralph."

Few subjects trouble Jackson more than King's death scene. On the one hand, he said in an interview, he feels people who thought he was an interloper in the first place at SCLC twisted his actions that day far more than he did. On the other hand, he still yearns for approval, especially from Coretta Scott King.

On March 6, the Sunday before the "Super Tuesday" presidential contests, another day when Jackson filled his speeches with the resurrection allegory, he delivered a sermon at King's old church, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta. Coretta Scott King was there and joined him in placing a wreath at King's memorial. Although Mrs. King refused to endorse Jackson, although she refused even to smile or look at him as they stood together, Jackson spoke proudly of the event for days.First Memory of Jackson in Selma

Jackson's introduction to King and the national civil rights movement occurred in Selma in March 1965. Jackson was a first-year student then at Chicago Theological Seminary. On the night of Bloody Sunday, March 7, after 600 civil rights marchers were attacked, beaten and tear-gassed by mounted Alabama troopers at Edmund Pettus Bridge, a call went out to clergy across the country to go to Selma to support the cause. Jackson organized a caravan of 21 students from the seminary. He was the only black among them.

Andrew Young was one of King's aides then, and his first memory of Jackson in Selma is of a guy that nobody knew standing on the steps of Brown Chapel giving orders to other marchers. Abernathy remembered Jackson doing errands and asking him for a job on the SCLC staff.

Jackson managed to impress enough people to get close to King one morning in Selma. Twenty years later, the thing he remembers most about that experience was King's briefcase. "It was open," Jackson said, "and I looked inside and saw two books, one by Reinhold Niebuhr and 'Love, Power and Justice' by Paul Tillich. He told me he read at least one serious book a week. Here with everything going on around him, he read those books. Most scholars don't act, and most actors aren't scholarly. From that first moment, King lifted my mental sky. He was the philosopher King."

Jackson never marched in Selma. He arrived there after Bloody Sunday and left long before the march to Montgomery resumed two weeks later. Jackson and two friends left for Chicago on March 11. Sick with the flu, they hit their beds when they got home. On the way back, they talked about the need to organize the movement in Chicago.

The next year King went to Chicago for his "War on Slums." Jackson by then was on the SCLC staff, organizing the Chicago chapter of a ministerial alliance, Operation Breadbasket, that was designed to pressure white businesses to provide more jobs and opportunities in the black community. During King's months in Chicago, which, unlike his southern efforts, produced more headlines than results, Jackson was on the outer rim of SCLC power and sometimes frustrated King by speaking for him or placing him in unexpected situations.

King left Chicago without victory -- there were to be no substantial changes in housing conditions -- but Jackson and Operation Breadbasket endured and prospered, winning job gains from soft drink firms and food chains. Partly by choice, partly because he was so far from the SCLC headquarters in Atlanta, Jackson built his own empire in Chicago, and as its dimensions grew so did King's concerns. According to Garrow's book, "Bearing the Cross," at one point King assigned William Rutherford, a black businessman from Chicago, to straighten out several SCLC problems, including Jackson.

"Jesse Jackson's so independent," King told Rutherford. "I either want him in SCLC or out." Rutherford found that Jackson was avoiding certain administrative duties, such as attending SCLC's executive staff meetings.

Garrow points out today that Jackson had not fully developed his own positions in the period before King's death. "He was still a protege at that point, not so much of King but of Jim Bevel," Garrow said. Bevel was on the left wing of the organization, a driving force in the anti-Vietnam war positions that King took in 1967 and 1968. Jackson favored antiwar militance.

"Much of the reason Jackson was in the position he was," Garrow said, "is because Bevel was saying, 'The war has to be our focus.' Most of what is written about Jackson during that period views him as an independent figure. He was very much connected to Bevel." (Bevel underwent a dramatic transformation after King's death, rebuked Jackson, and became a right-wing Republican.)

On March 30, 1968, after his first march in Memphis on behalf of the striking garbage workers ended in a violent confrontation, King met with his staff at Ebenezer Baptist Church. He said that he needed their full support. They had to stop arguing and get behind him. After chewing them out, he started out the door. Jackson tried to follow him.

"If you are so interested in doing your own thing that you can't do what the organization is structured to do, go ahead," King told him. "If you want to carve out your own niche in society, go ahead, but for God's sake don't bother me."

Five days later, April 4, Jackson was part of the team in Memphis. His Operation Breadbasket band, led by saxophone player Ben Branch, was there, too. They had rooms at the Lorraine Motel, a black-owned establishment near the Mississippi River. Jackson spent part of the afternoon at an SCLC meeting in Room 306, where King and Abernathy were staying. Then he went over to where the band was rehearsing.

"We were trying to rehearse Brother Jesse Jackson with a song, because he does have a style, he has an idea about singing," Branch said in a 1968 interview.

Across the courtyard, Billy Kyles had arrived at King's room, ready to take him to dinner at his house. His wife, Gwen, had prepared a soul food dinner for King and his entourage: ham, macaroni and cheese, chitlins, neck bones, candied sweet potatoes, cole slaw, corn muffins, corn pones, greens and iced tea.

King was in a playful mood. "All right now, Billy, I don't want you fooling me. Are we going to have soul food?" he asked Kyles. "Now if we go over there and get some filet mignon or T-bone, you're going to flunk."

Outside the room, in the parking lot below, some of the other people invited to the dinner were gathering. Solomon Jones, a driver for the night, was there in a Cadillac. Jim Bevel and Jim Orange were standing behind the car. Andrew Young was nearby, along with Chauncey Eskridge, an SCLC lawyer. Hosea Williams was on the first floor trying to open his room.

Finally King and Kyles stepped out on the balcony and started chatting with the people below. Jackson and Branch were approaching from the band's rehearsal room. "Our leader!" Jackson shouted up to King. King exchanged greetings with everyone. He joked with Jackson about not inviting the whole band, and Kyles turned to King and said, "Well, you can't leave Jesse out. Jesse was the instigator of this thing." When King asked Jackson, dressed in a turtleneck sweater, brown leather coat and rolled-up blue jeans, whether he would wear a tie to dinner, as others were, Jackson joked that he thought the only requirement for eating was an appetite.

Jackson introduced Branch, and King said: "Yeah, that's my man. Look, tonight, I want you to play that 'Precious Lord' like you never played it before . . . . Especially for me I want you to play it real pretty."

According to some witnesses' accounts, King was shot right after he said that. Jackson says it happened after he talked to King about his appetite. But most accounts say there was one further conversation: that Jones, the driver, told King that it was getting chilly and that King should get his coat. "Okay, Jonesy," might have been King's last words.

Kyles was the only other person on the balcony when the shot exploded at King's neck, throwing him up in the air and down to the balcony floor and severing his spinal cord. Kyles had been walking away from King at that moment, toward the stairwell. Abernathy was inside the room. Within seconds, Abernathy was on the balcony, cradling King in his arms. A Justice Department official who had been traveling with King came with a towel. Young and several others rushed up to the balcony. When an officer asked where the shot came from, they pointed across the street, toward a rooming house.

That scene was captured for posterity by a Life magazine picture. Jackson is not visible as one of the people pointing. Branch and Williams remembered Jackson telling them not to talk to the press. Then they both saw him giving interviews. He was quoted on one news report as having been on the balcony when King was shot. Later that night, after King died, Abernathy held an emergency meeting. Jackson was not there. Williams recalled that Jackson had told them he was sick. "To my amazement, early the following morning, there sits Jesse Jackson on the 'Today' show in Chicago, with that bloody shirt," Williams said.'There Was No Sinister Context'

Jackson kept the shirt on all day. He wore it to the memorial session of the Chicago City Council where he made the crucifixion speech. That night he gave interviews on local TV shows. Don Rose, a Chicago publicist, accompanied Jackson to those shows. He is the source of the stories that Jackson was plotting how to assume King's role. Rose says that the story has been exaggerated through the years to make it sound as though Jackson called a strategy session on the subject. In fact, according to Rose, the two men were talking informally.

"It was a series of conversations over the course of a day," Rose said. "We were basically talking about how Jesse probably had the best opportunity to assume the cloak of leadership because he was the only one who had a youth following. We were both very much in accord, sort of reinforcing each other. Jesse was somber. Shellshocked. He was not conniving. There was no sinister context."

On Saturday morning, two days after King's death, Jackson held his weekly rally of Operation Breadbasket. Prior rallies attracted a few hundred people. This time 5,000 showed up. And they kept coming back week after week. Jesse Jackson had reached a new level.

That is most of what there is to the relationship of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Louis Jackson, except for the question of lineage and legacy. Was it prefigured that Jackson would emerge as America's leading black figure after King's death?

"No. Not at all," said Garrow, King's biographer. "Most people then, and anyone looking back at where things were at the time of Doc's death, would have said 'Andy' -- period. Andy Young in a way was like Doc. A lot of people wanted Andy to challenge Abernathy openly in the early 1970s, but Andy would not do it. When he makes the shift and runs for Congress, it was a way to sidestep the problem. But after King's death it is Jesse, rather than Andy, who begins to challenge Ralph, and the attention starts to move to him."

Now Jackson has most of the attention. Young, as mayor of Atlanta, will host the Democratic convention this summer. Jackson might dominate it. Is Jackson the new King? Aside from personality differences, there are substantive contrasts. King was an accomplished team leader. He molded widely diverse personalities into a team under him. Jackson is more of a mass leader; he has never had much success building a team. He is in many ways his own staff.

Is it even a fair question?

"The tendency is to always want to compare personalities, or make it an either-or situation," said Dr. Joseph Lowery, SCLC's president. "Jesse Jackson is not extending Martin King. Jesse Jackson is extending Jesse Jackson, and the movement, into the political arena."

Kyles said, "If King was Moses, then Jesse is Joshua. We can't say Jesse is Moses again. Black people can't keep starting over. To say Jesse is the new Martin is not right. He stands on Martin's shoulders. Whoever comes after Jesse will stand on his shoulders.

"The fact that every black leader doesn't support Jesse is all right. Some still can't forgive him for something 20 years ago; that's okay. We don't beat with one heartbeat. All white people are not voting for {Massachusetts Gov. Michael S.} Dukakis. We have counterparts for everybody that white people have. We are human, too. Martin King was very human. Jesse Jackson is very human. Black people can be great without being myths."