In a rare tribute to a major industrialist, leaders of the nation's civil rights movement yesterday honored Thomas A. Murphy, chairman of the General Motors Corp., for his work in raising money for minority causes and his efforts to improve the economic and racial climate in Detroit.

Murphy, who is retiring from his post Jan. 1 after six years as GM's chairman, was lauded by about 150 civil rights and business leaders at a luncheon at the Washington Hilton.

"I don't know of any white man in this nation who could have gathered these black leaders except for President Carter before November 4," said Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In addition to Hooks, the luncheon was also attended by Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young; Vernon Jordan, president of the National Urban League; Coretta Scott King, president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Social Change; and M. Carl Holman, president of the National Urban Coalition.

Murphy has been a leading fund-raiser for the United Negro College Fund, serving as national corporate chairman and three times as national general chairman. Christopher Edley, president of the college fund, said Murphy has "been at the center" of the raising of $173.2 million for the 41 private black colleges aided by the group.

As chairman of the fund's Capital Resources Development program, Murphy has raised more than the group's $50 million goal and by the end of the year, Edley said, the figure will climb to $60 million.

"This man is the epitome of leadership in business and industry in America and the world as far as social responsibilities are concerned," said Dr. Leon Sullivan, chairman of the board of Opportunities Industrialization Centers of America Inc., and a GM board member.

Sullivan praised Murphy's work within the corporation, in particular noting the appointment of Otis Smith, a black man, as the GM chief counsel, during the Murphy term. Sullivan also pointed out that in Murphy's last act before the board, the 65-year-old executive, who has been with the company since 1938, ordered a report on what GM could do to increase the number of auto dealerships run by blacks.

Noting the urban loss of business and population, a problem which has plagued Detroit and other major cities, Young said GM, which is trying to develop a site in the city for a plant employing 6,000 workers, said Murphy and GM have been "outstanding not only in their determination to stay but in their determination to improve the environment in which they live."

Murphy, obviously moved by the remarks, praised GM employes for thier commitment to equal opportunity and called for a continuation of the "social progress" that has made the "American dream open and available to more than just a chosen few." Murphy said that social divisions and quarreling factions within America could be "destructive to us as a people and a nation."