FREEDOM SONG; A Personal Story of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement By Mary King Morrow. 592p. $22.95

MARY KING'S Freedom Song: A Personal Story of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement is a welcome step towards the vivid and passionate history the movement deserves -- a book that would encompass the human reality, the motivations, the conflicts, the loves, the hates, the triumphs and the sorrows of the most prominent social crusade of 20th-century America. But it is only a step, for Freedom Song's major weakness is that it does not go far enough into the crises and the conflicts that must have existed and offers too few insights into the characters of the people who lived through the extreme pressures of the times.

For King, a white woman who worked for more than two years in the communications department of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, everyone in the movment was "handsome," "beautiful," "tall, lean," "vivacious," "steely" and "earnest." No one in her SNCC had any character flaws and there were few fights over power and ideology.

But, for all that, King's story is informative. And when "Freedom Song," focuses honestly on the movement, it begins to reveal the gripping story of people living through turbulent yet thrilling days.

Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who was an aide to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., has written a foreword to the book, while Mary King's former SNCC colleague Casey Hayden has written a preface. Both stress that its principal value lies in Mary King's effort to bring a personal touch to the history of the movement.

Hayden writes that the movement "was everything: home and family, food and work, love and a reason to live." The times were "exciting, liberating, spicy." King's book, Hayden writes, will keep alive "a period and a movement which are rapidly becoming forgotten or misunderstood."

The book works best when King writes about the romance of the movement and particularly her attraction to SNCC. Formed in 1960 after the student sit-ins swept the South, SNCC became the young, impatient voice of the movement. Its members, primarily young black men, were the youthful shock troops of the struggle, refusing to affiliate with older, more established groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King, a young white woman just out of Ohio Wesleyan University in 1962, came into contact with the civil rights movement during a senior year project on race relations in the south. The tour, during her Easter recess from school, brought her to the Atlanta offices and national headquarters of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The group had 41 full-time workers running voter registration efforts as well as conducting "direct action" programs, such as sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, in six states.

Almost immediately, SNCC "gripped my imagination," King writes.

"I had vaguely known that it {SNCC} was born as a result of the sit-ins," she observes. "Yet, only after a result of my meeting John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, Jim Forman, and Julian Bond {all early members}, was I able to see how youthful, bold, and idealistic was this group. It was different in its dynamism and outlook from the other more staid civil rights groups I had encountered. In these SNCC workers I sensed high energy, self-assurance, impatience, and determination. I identified with them. I saw myself in them. Although it was small, SNCC seemed potent."

FREEDOM SONG is most absorbing when it shows the details of post-adolescents running a civil rights group and the contradictions in their methods and actions. Here are civil rights workers, self-assured and determined, yet intentionally "dressing down" to emulate the poor people with whom they worked (thereby establishing a new radical chic in fashion); here is SNCC manipulating the press to get stories into print (and protecting SNCC workers by having reporters on the scene to watch for police brutality).

And there is wonderful irony in her writing about the prejudice both black and white women faced in the male-dominated SNCC. The second-class status of women in the organization prompted a tough, honest letter, authored by King herself, that was distributed at a SNCC meeting. There was so much tension over the letter that it had to be submitted to the group anonymously. SNCC official Stokeley Carmichael's response -- quoted by King -- was that the position of women in SNCC was "prone."

The reader wants more about the difficulties women faced and the sexual tension in SNCC, but King does not offer it. Instead, she downplays Carmichael's comment as a joke, as if she expects us to believe that Carmichael meant it that way, or that it was taken as such.

Similarly, disputes between factions in SNCC are discussed politely and only in passing. King takes the easy way out of dealing with the rivalry between SNCC and the Rev. Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference by restricting herself to the observation that SNCC's militant rhetoric transformed SCLC into an acceptable, moderate group in the eyes of the public. There was real animosity between the two groups and SNCC's special animus was directed at the Rev. King. Little of this is discussed.

The biggest punch King pulls is on the subject of sex. She writes that she decided not to have sex during this period of her life because she was so busy. She remarks that there were open tensions between black women and white women as a result of black male interest in the white women who came to work in SNCC. But King writes that no one ever approached her with a proposition. And she does not write about the experiences of other white women and black men who broke the great taboo prohibiting black-white sex.

In a sense, King's reluctance to deal with these issues is part of the story. While late in the book she judges SNCC's failure to have stemmed from its inability to "find ways of involving significantly larger numbers of people," becoming "exclusive" rather than "inclusive," it would seem that more than 20 years later she does not want to break bonds with that exclusive club. It is out of the same protective instinct that former SNCC activists have kept some of the organization's letters and official documents off-limits to researchers and writers at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta.

King went on to become deputy director of ACTION during the Carter administration,, and is now executive director of of Young Ideas, Inc., a tax-exempt public policy group in Washington, but the people she writes about here are still her friends. The "protest elite," as their critics have dubbed them in their middle-age, may privately share memories of the emotion and thrills of the past. But publicly they restrict themselves to high-sounding pronouncements on race; they do not share the texture of their lives' passion. Mary King's book is a first step in the direction of sharing that passion; it is to be hoped that others will follow her lead.

Juan Williams, a writer for The Washington Post Magazine, is the author of "Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years 1954-1965."