The swaying melody of "We Are the World," the newly released record featuring 46 rock stars to raise money to feed the starving in Africa, played over and over in the vast hotel ballroom.

It was appropriate. The mood of last night's Washington Urban League dinner was one of "giving" and "caring." And saying "thank you." All four words were said over and over.

Every year the league throws a giant dinner (seafood soup, salad, meat and potatoes and make-your-own sundaes for 1,500) to honor a handful of people.

"Each year it gets bigger and bigger and better and better," said Mayor Marion Barry in his opening remarks.

"If ever there was a time that we needed the Washington Urban League and the National Urban League it's now, because our civil rights and gains are being threatened by the present administration." Barry mentioned the current case involving the District's firefighters in which the Justice Department has filed suit to block an affirmative action plan.

"There's been a struggle to come this far . . . we must remember that the struggle is not over yet," Barry said. He also said that the "drug epidemic" in the District could not be won without help from the federal government. He would not comment on anything else, like the 1986 budget he had approved earlier in the day, or the prospects of finding a place for a new D.C. prison.

Barry was the guest speaker at the Whitney M. Young Jr. Memorial Dinner, named for the man who was executive director of the National Urban League during the 1960s and a leader in the civil rights fight. In the Sheraton Washington, where dinner guests including WJLA's Renee Poussaint and David Schoumacher and former White House social secretary Gretchen Poston, the crowd recognized the following five for their work:

* Sterling Tucker, described in the program as being "a major player in the D.C. drama for the last 30 years," was honored for being a long-term advocate of social change.

Tucker remembered when he went to Nigeria in 1971 to bring home the body of Whitney Young, who had died there. "Much went through our minds then and now we can't help but recall how much he's done for this nation . . . " said Tucker. "You honor me too much."

* Kent and Carmen Amos, a husband-and-wife team who run a tutoring program for Coolidge High School students, were honored for their work in education and youth services. Kent Amos told another story. This one was about visiting one of his students in California who was doing poorly in school, but playing great basketball. After winning a championship game, Amos and the student went back to Amos' hotel room and talked not about sports, but about the need to live a fulfilled life. Amos said it showed how no government or community organization will solve the problems of the world. Instead it's a feeling from within.

"We accept this not for ourselves, but for our kids, and all of us. Let's think about our future." Amos got the only standing ovation of the night.

* In the area of economic development, Bishop John Hurst Adams was cited for his work as founder and chairman of the Congress of National Black Churches in developing an effective network of churches and other community-based organizations to help them become more self-sufficient.

* James W. Rouse, chairman of the board of Enterprise Development Foundation, which focuses on revitalizing urban areas, was honored for his contributions in supporting and financing housing for the poor. Accepting the award, Rouse said, "It's the credit of hundreds of other people which as an old man you get credit for."