Carl Rowan, who wrote his column for the Chicago Sun-Times for 32 years, is now embroiled in a nasty lawsuit against the newspaper.

Rowan, 73, says the tabloid forced him out last year in the wake of an ownership change at the paper. In a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington, Rowan says that management found him too liberal, too black and too old.

"It was very clear to me that this was a very conservative group and they were trying to goad me into retiring after 30-some years," Rowan says. "This is very destructive of all the efforts that I and others have been making to achieve diversity in the newspaper business."

Nonsense, says Sun-Times attorney Bruce Sanford. "These charges were never made at the time," he says. "It all smells of litigation complaint-writing. . . . I think this is embarrassing for Carl. He shouldn't have brought it." The suit, which seeks $1 million in compensatory damages, is headed for a court-ordered arbitration hearing next week.

Rowan, who ran the U.S. Information Agency in Lyndon Johnson's administration, has long been one of Washington's premier commentators. He retired from the syndicated program "Inside Washington" in 1996 after what he said was an attempt by WUSA-TV, which produces the show, to cut his $123,000 salary by two-thirds.

While he still writes his syndicated column, Rowan cut his ties to the Sun-Times a year ago. "I'm taking the position that it was a forced retirement," he says.

Sanford says the paper was "stunned" by the lawsuit. Sun-Times Editor in Chief Nigel Wade, while declining to discuss the suit, says: "He retired, and I wrote him a letter asking if he'd like to unretire. That's where we left it."

The suit was first filed in March in D.C. Superior Court, and later shifted to federal court.

Rowan says his problems began after the Sun-Times was acquired in 1994 by a company controlled by Canadian press baron Conrad Black. Rowan signed a five-year deal in 1995 that would pay him $76,000 the first year, eventually rising to $88,000, plus $41,500 in syndication money from King Features.

There were other perks: The Sun-Times was to pay Rowan's Gridiron Club dues, $5,000 a year in business expenses and $16,000 for covering the presidential conventions.

The lawsuit says the Sun-Times violated the contract, which called for Rowan's column to be run three times a week, by cutting him back to twice weekly--"substituting instead the columns of younger and more politically conservative columnists." This, it is charged, was "professionally and personally humiliating."

The paper also failed to pay Rowan's salary increases and--the unkindest cut of all--did not reimburse him for the Gridiron dinner, the suit charges.

In a potentially more explosive charge, Rowan accuses the paper of racial discrimination. "I was told by a reliable source, which will come out in the trial, that this new group had given instructions to get the black images out of the paper so they could appeal to the white suburbs," he says.

Sanford dismissed the allegation, noting that the Sun-Times's strength is in Chicago, not in the suburbs. He said the paper has two African American political columnists on staff and also runs columns by conservative black scholar Thomas Sowell.

The age discrimination charge alleges that the paper prefers younger, cheaper employees. Sanford called that ridiculous, saying the Sun-Times believed Rowan had retired.

The paper still hopes for a cease-fire, Sanford says: "They'd be happy to have him back anytime. He had a glorious run for many decades at the Chicago Sun-Times."

"That's their position now, after the suit's filed," replies lawyer and former D.C. Council member John Ray, who is representing Rowan. "That was not their position before."

Rowan says the split has hardly derailed his career. "It doesn't mean I'm lying around weeping," he says. "But these are serious charges."

CAPTION: The Sun-Times says Carl Rowan wasn't ousted, he retired.