By the time the reception started, most people were just too wrung out for a social event.

The party climaxed four days of discussion of the 25th anniversary of the Supreme Court's public school desegregation decision. Many of the lawyers and plaintiffs who had assembled at Howard University yesterday, from all parts of the country, had left after the panels and the press conferences were over.

A dozen plantiffs whose suits had been part of the 1954 landmark case of Brown versus the Board of Education had retold the stories of tension and threats that marked their lives a quarter-century ago. In the seminars, lawyers and academicians had generally agreed that the Brown decision had given immeasurable impetus to civil rights, but that th progress was being eroded by reemerging conservative forces.

"I think the common theme of today was [that] we are not as far as we thought we would be since Brown," said a weary-sounding Wiley Branton, dean of the Howard Law School and an influential civil-rights lawyer. Howard, where the meetings sponsored by the NAACP legal Defense and Educational Fund are being held, also was the site of much of the groundwork, coordination and rehearsals of the Brown cases.

Among the few lawyers, journalists and students who stayed after the formal program, the day's discussions were continued. One topic was the rivalry between the NAACP, the country's oldest civil-rights organization, and the Legal Defense Fund, which retains the NAACP initials but has been a separate organization for 20 years. Both claim credit for the Brown case, and are holding separate commemorations. The Legal Defense Fund opened its program in New York on Monday, moved here yesterday, and will conclude with a large dinner at the Shoreham-Americana Thursday night.

Michael Winston, historian and direcotor of Howard's historic research center, said, "It's very unfortunate that there would be a squabble over a celebration of a historic event.Everyone benefited. I see this rivalry as a sign of weakness rather than strength; there's far too much at stake."

Despite the thin crowd, at the seminars and reception, Jack Greenberg, the director and chief counsel of the Legal Defense Fund - one of the principal lawyers in the Brown Case - thought the first day had been a success. "The mood was energetic, generally up and happy. Of course, everything was underscored with the objective realization that there are many needs to be addressed," said Greenberg. "But by the conclusion of these meetings I think we will see a renewed sense of solidarity." CAPTION: Picture 1, Wiley Branton, Jack Greenberg and Vi Curtis Hinton at party commemorating Brown decision, by Margaret Thomas - The Washington Post; Picture 2, Rep. Augustus Hawkins, Coretta Scott King; by Joe Heiberger - The Washington Post; Picture 3, Edward Kennedy and Mrs. Peter Jay with Elizabeth Drew; by Harry Naltchayan; Picture 4, From left, Patricia Harris, Elizabeth Holtzman, Michael Blumenthal and Margaret Heckler; by Fred Sweets - The Washington Post.