CHICAGO (AP) _ When Lenard Clark was found crumpled and unconscious on a South Side street, the victim of a brutal beating, police had no doubt about the motive.

The black 13-year-old had bicycled into a mostly white neighborhood one night last spring, and the color of his skin apparently sparked an attack so violent it touched a nerve across the nation.

President Clinton asked Americans to pray for the youngster left comatose by a ``savage and senseless assault driven by nothing but hate.'' Politicians and civil rights leaders visited his hospital bedside.

Thirteen months later, the three young white men charged with trying to kill Lenard Clark are about to go on trial in a case that dramatically underscores the nation's unresolved racial tensions.

The case may also put pressure on Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine, a close ally of Mayor Richard M. Daley, to show that justice is colorblind. Daley is up for re-election next year and any perception of unfairness at the trial could hurt his efforts to build bridges to the city's black community.

``We as Americans and Chicagoans must come out of denial _ racism is real,'' declared the Rev. B. Herbert, whose church nestles in the shadows of the housing project where Lenard and his family lived at the time of the attack.

The scene of the beating, Armour Square, is at the edge of Bridgeport, a neighborhood of tidy blue-collar homes that has given Chicago four mayors in 50 years _ two of them named Daley.

The current mayor grew up a few blocks from the square, a shady expanse of grass and playground ringed by a neat wrought-iron fence just north of Comiskey Park, home of the neighborhood's beloved White Sox.

Just across the busy Dan Ryan Expressway is another world _ a mile of crumbling high-rise housing projects where elevators often break, stairwells can be pitch-dark and foul-smelling, and tough street gang members sell drugs in the doorways.

On the day that changed his life forever, Lenard and a playmate crossed the bridge that spans the expressway on their bicycles, looking for a basketball game. They were just leaving the square when they were allegedly approached by a trio of menacing white men uttering racial slurs.

Both tried to get away but Lenard was caught. Police say his assailants knocked Lenard off his bike, slammed his head into a stone wall and kicked him repeatedly, leaving the boy brain-injured and in a comatose state.

Police searched the area for witnesses and arrested three young Bridgeport residents.

Frank Caruso, 19, Victor Jasas, 18, and Michael Kwidzinski, 20, were charged with attempted murder, aggravated battery and committing a hate crime. Police said the trio wanted to rid the area of blacks and bragged about the attack.

Each has denied attacking Lenard.

The Rev. B. Herbert Martin's church nestles in the shadows of the housing project where Lenard and his family once lived. Martin said the Caruso and Jasas families had been volunteers in a ``Hands Across the Bridge'' project he started in an effort to bring the white and black communities together.

``Irony of ironies,'' said Martin, who was pastor to the late Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor. ``Here are wonderful, God-loving citizens ... and here they are on the front pages of newspapers because their children are involved in this terrible, controversial situation.''

Jury selection, scheduled to get underway Monday before Circuit Judge Daniel Locallo, is expected to be a lengthy process. Two separate juries will be in the courtroom to decide the guilt or innocence of Caruso and Jasas. Locallo will decide Kwidzinski's fate, since the defendant declined a jury trial.

Lenard is expected to testify. Although he has said he doesn't remember what happened that night, attorneys say he can recall his long weeks in a rehabilitation hospital and the painful efforts to piece his life together.

``Right now he's trying to cope with the emotional and psychological effects of what has happened,'' said Dan Kotin, an attorney who will represent Lenard if he sues the alleged assailants and their families.

After the attack, Lenard and his family moved out of the projects and into a four-bedroom home provided by the city's housing authority. Because of his impaired cognitive skills, he needs round-the-clock supervision, and doctors say he may never make a full recovery from the attack.

``He's going to school and he's at his appropriate grade, but he's in special classes,'' Kotin said. ``He has a brain injury and it affects his ability to perform in school. He's getting around and he's trying to lead as normal a life as he can, but he needs constant care.''