FREE AT LAST? The Civil Rights Movement And the People Who Made It By Fred Powledge Little, Brown. 711 pp. $29.95

FRED POWLEDGE reminds us that when he was a young man his home state, North Carolina, imprisoned two black boys, aged 8 and 9, for rape because their playmate, a white girl, had kissed one of them.

He reminds us, too, that sometimes to ride a bus in Montgomery, Ala., "a Negro would have to enter the front door, pay the fare, step back out on the pavement, and reenter the bus through the back door. (Segregation was many things to many people in the South, but certainly one of its universal characteristics was that it was insanely complicated.)"

And he tells us of a fearsome night in McComb, Miss., when a black youth -- the only member of a voter registration squad who hadn't been jailed -- got a message to Washington, begging for help. John Doar, one of the few officials of the Justice Department Powledge credits with courage, showed up. The first meeting of the president's emissary and the young black was at night, in the back of a Negro-owned butcher shop, lights out, whispering, afraid for their lives.

Incidents like these, and Free at Last? is full of them, recreate a South that was until the mid-1960s a kind of regional Third Reich (several times Powledge draws analogies to the Gestapo, Nazi rallies, etc.), where millions of citizens who happened to be black lived in constant fear, knowing that if they assaulted Southern tradition in such trivial ways as, say, drinking from the wrong public fountains or trying to borrow books from the public library, they could be beaten, or jailed, or fired from their jobs. If they tried something really outrageous, like voting, they could wind up floating in the bayou.

That racial terror, and the heroic little army that put an end to it through the civil rights movement -- which Powledge calls "the most important social event in American history since Independence" -- is what this book is all about.

In many ways the Movement was a war, with one army fighting non-violently and the other with considerable violence, killing several dozen, injuring hundreds and jailing many thousands (20,000 in 1963 alone).

Those who were there recall in conversation with Powledge the jealousies and rivalries within the Movement, and the grim strategies of such battles as the Greensboro lunch counters, the Montgomery bus lines, the Birmingham streets, the Ole Miss registrar's office, the Selma bridge. Powledge himself was at many of these places, as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal and later the New York Times, and had his share of being pushed around by the segs.

There have been other worthy histories of the Movement, most recently Taylor Branch's well-received Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, but Powledge's history has a somewhat different perspective. He feels the role of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has been exaggerated to such a high degree that "the truth of what happened in those years is fading and is in danger of being lost." Powledge concentrates on the unglamorous trench soldiers, and in that sense he can be considered the Ernie Pyle of the Movement.

Being King was not without its perils, as his murder proved. But along the way there were compensations for being seen as The Symbol of the Movement. When King went to jail, he could take along (as one witness told Powledge) creased silk pajamas for lounging, confident that he would not be mistreated or imprisoned long because the Kennedys kept watch over him and saw to it that he had quick bail.

Those who operated far below King, writes Powledge, performed "equally important . . . heroic acts" that put them in just as much peril, but for a long while nobody in power seemed to give a damn about what happened to them.

In Powledge's judgment: The white church establishment was so timid as to be useless; President Eisenhower was a sleep-walking racist; President Kennedy and brother Robert, the attorney general, were craven bunglers who caved in to segregationist politicians and refused to enforce federal laws that would have protected civil rights workers from Dixie mobs. IRONICALLY, Powledge suggests that the Movement got more help, if accidentally, from thuggish policemen like Bull Connor of Birmingham, Ala., and Jim Clark of Selma, Ala., who, by splattering plenty of blood on the evening news shows, put public opinion in the rest of the nation solidly behind the civil rights laws passed by the Johnson administration.

Powledge's history is as tough, gritty and sardonic as it is readable. It leaves one with the uneasy feeling that if all Southern officials had been as cool and clever as those who ran Albany, Ga. -- where the Movement suffered its most bitter defeat -- blacks might still be knocking on the back door.

It also leaves the reader with another echo of Germany. Just as all the Nazis have disappeared, so in the South today, one Movement leader asks, "Where have all the segregationists gone? . . . I can't find anybody who acknowledges having been one."

Was the Movement's victory, and the region's change of heart, that complete? Powledge isn't convinced. "Could it happen again? Surely it could. White racists could recapture power, and segregationists could regain control of the courts (to the extent they have not regained it already). White supremacist laws could be passed again, and separate but equal could again be the law of the land. But the segregationists would have to do without the weapon of terror. It is gone, now."

Robert Sherrill is corporations correspondent for the Nation magazine, and the author of "Gothic Politics in the Deep South."