The NAACP has been at the throat of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund these past months, but last night at a Defense Fund dinner the idea was to downplay the dispute and concentrate on either the cocktail hour or keynote speech by U.N. Ambassador Donald McHenry.

"I don't know whether we will go to court or whether we won't go to court," said William Coleman, former transportation secretary and the fund's board chairman.

The dispute to boil more than two decades of simmering emotion into a nutshell, is this: The NAACP wants the legally separate fund to drop NAACP from its title, saying it wrongfully collects money from the name. The fund says absolutely not. Last night, in fact, NAACP was printed all over the invitations, dinner programs and signs at the Capital Hilton.

"The fact is," Coleman added in between the first and second courses, "the name was given to us. We have as much a right to the name as anyone else. I hope that the NAACP, after going to a lawyer, will realize that there's no merit to their case."

About 600 people attended the dinner, among them Mayor Marion Barry. He came late and left early, but not before pointing out his green-and-white Carter-Mondale button and making a few very safe remarks about the candidate he has not always enthusiastically backed for today's District primary.

"It's going to be awfully tough on the president," Barry said. "Kennedy has a natural emotional appeal in the District. And a lot of my supporters and friends are working for Kennedy." Soon after, off he dashed, way before the main course was served.

McHenry spoke on human rights in a tone that was clearly more soothing than fiery. Some people nodded their heads and closed their eyes.

"At the ripe old age of 204, Americans have lost the revolutionary zeal of their youth," McHenry said. "We have moved on to the status quo of middle age. We are afraid to move on to support other priniciples."

Earlier, McHenry had welcomed the attack on the Iranian mission in London. "I'm sorry for the loss of life," he said, "but I'm glad it's over. lI think the British did about the only thing they could do."

Before the dinner speeches was the cocktail hour, where the 600 guests, mostly black civic leaders and professionals, crammed into a sticky reception room. It was so hot the ladies had to take off their mink coats.

The reason for the dinner was money. ViCurtis Hinton, the organization's Washington coordinator, estimated that the paying guests would raise $60,000 for the fund, a national legal resource agency for people and groups denied equality in employment, education, housing and justice.