THE LIGHTED BILLBOARD AT GRAMBLING STATE University spelled out the sentiment on campus: "Welcome -- William Bradford Reynolds, assistant attorney general for civil rights."

Reynolds was at Grambling to take a little credit for some recent improvements at the university and to give a speech dedicating the new school of nursing. The additions to Grambling, which has an overwhelmingly black student body, had come from an agreement between the Justice Department and Louisiana that required the state to give the school money to bring its facilities up to par with the predominantly white schools in the state system.

In his remarks introducing Reynolds to the packed auditorium at the nursing school, Grambling President Joseph Johnson stressed the importance of Reynolds: "He is a friend of Grambling State University." Though Johnson spoke only about two minutes, he worked that thought into his address three times.

Reynolds' speech was short and unremarkable, yet when he finished, he found himself surrounded by students rushing the stage. They thanked him for their scholarships. They thanked him for the new nursing school. They thanked him for the expanded library. They thanked him for other new programs at Grambling. And they asked if he would do more -- get more money from Louisiana to build even more new buildings. All the while, the students jockeyed with one another, maneuvering to get closer to Reynolds, to talk to him and to pose with him. "Could I have my picture taken with you?" they asked. And then they'd stand up straight, put an arm around the lanky white man from the Reagan Justice Department and ask friends to click off a few photos.

The scene was remarkable for its absence of tension. A smiling Reynolds awash in a sea of friendly black faces would seem wildly ironic to many civil rights leaders. They have been shouting a warning chorus for years that Reynolds is the living symbol of Ronald Reagan's assault on civil rights enforcement. To many civil rights leaders, he personifies an effort to kill affirmative action programs, to stop busing, to cripple court decisions ordering integration, to dismantle the civil rights commission and to halt the civil rights movement itself, a movement that in the last 30 years has changed American history. WILLIAM BRADFORD REYNOLDS HAS BEEN RUN- ning the civil rights division of the Justice Department for almost seven years. Ten men have held the job since the division was created by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957. Nine of them aggressively fought racial discrimination in American life. Few of the 10 will be long remembered, but Reynolds is an exception: He will have a place in the history books as the first assistant attorney general for civil rights to try to get the federal government, local governments and even the courts to halt a wide range of established civil rights reforms, from affirmative action to busing.

"Under Mr. Reynolds, the civil rights division has changed sides. It no longer is an advocate for blacks or minorities," said former attorney general Nicholas DeB. Katzenbach. "It has never happened before under a Democratic or Republican president. It didn't happen under Nixon or, before that, under Eisenhower. It's a total change of policy. The department is supposed to defend the disadvantaged, the people who are victims of discrimination. Either Mr. Reynolds doesn't understand what civil rights is all about or he is not interested in the pursuit of equality. Rights for Americans seems to him to mean rights for white males."

Now Reynolds has gained even more power to carry out his policies. With Attorney General Edwin I. Meese III preoccupied by the Iran-contra investigations, the Wedtech investigations and his grandson's death, Reynolds runs much of the Justice Department. He has also become the administration's ideological checkpoint within the department, exercising control over policy and many operations.

The magnitude of criticism Reynolds has received for trying to roll back many established civil rights actions is overwhelming, and it comes from everywhere -- from blacks, from whites, even from Republicans. Consider a few examples:

From Congress: When he was rejected in 1985 by the Senate Judiciary Committee for promotion to associate attorney general, the third highest post in the Justice Department, a parade of senators and critics excoriated Reynolds as an "ideologue," "a rigid and reactionary man," "the Scrooge of the Justice Department." In hearings, he was characterized as a man who has been "mean-spirited in dispensing justice to the citizens of this nation," "the principal architect of a comprehensive assault on our civil rights laws," a man with a "lack of respect for the {Supreme Court} and the Congress," a federal official who has "helped create a climate which fosters racial bias in this country."

From Republicans: "I'm not in tune with the policies of this Justice Department and Mr. Reynolds," said New York attorney John Doar, who in the mid-'60s was a key assistant attorney general dealing with the civil rights movement.

From historians: "I don't have any respect for the job he's done," said Henry Steele Commager, who wrote the 50-volume set The Rise of the American Nation. "History's judgment of him will be that he had no salutary or healthy effect on civil rights in this country," said John Hope Franklin of Duke University, author of From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans.

From blacks: Benjamin Hooks, head of the NAACP, said Reynolds uses "goody-goody words like 'colorblind,' and 'fairness' and 'race-neutral' " to hide his real goal, which is to keep black people down.

Others are even less subtle, calling Reynolds an out-and-out racist. Nevertheless, many who are close to Reynolds, black and white, insist he is not a slick, 1980s-style racist. They argue that his actions would be seen more favorably if he were black, that he truly believes affirmative action and busing have not helped end racism in America and that new policies are needed. He has been unfairly labeled, they say, because he is a multimillionaire heir to the du Pont fortune who works for the Reagan administration.

"Some people say, you know, 'How can you work for him? You must push a button when you go in there to change from black to white,' " said Zebbie King, Reynolds' administrative special assistant. "I personally do not consider Brad a racist. He's just trying to set the record straight so when the government works to stop discrimination against blacks, it does not allow discrimination against whites. If I didn't like and respect him, I wouldn't work here."

"He has become a demi-god in the conservative movement," said Assistant Attorney General Charles Cooper, "because of how he does his job. He stands for something."

"Brad is the last guy in the country to be anti-civil rights," said Clarence Thomas, a black Reaganite who is chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "But he has taken a beating as being racist and anti-civil rights because that's easy for his opponents. He has simply zeroed in on an expansive reading of the law by the prior administration. He doesn't want to undercut the law; he wants to roll back the law into a reasonable context. He does not want to discriminate against blacks, and he doesn't want to discriminate for blacks. No one accuses Brad of not bringing suits for people who are victims of discrimination. They accuse him of not getting the across-the-board remedies they like -- like quotas. Brad does not support quotas. But you can't equate what he does with fighting civil rights laws."

Part of the reason Reynolds finds any support at all for his policies is because he has been able to intellectualize the issues, to turn talk away from emotional positions to dry, philosophical arguments. He has made civil rights a quandary to be dealt with in the mind, rather than a matter of the heart. Instead of seeing generations of sorrow and oppression being righted by affirmative action plans, Reynolds sees flawed laws that discriminate against whites. His head-over-heart persona is amplified by his demeanor, described by many who have met him as emotionless, meticulous, unfeeling and cold.

Reynolds' first wife, Lynn, who was married to him from 1964 to 1984 and is the mother of his four children, said, "I don't think Brad feels a lot -- the feeling component is missing . . . Brad doesn't feel at home with that emotional side of life. It's hard for him. His life is in his office, in the Justice Department, in a law firm, in front of a courtroom, going through papers. He didn't spend time with me. He doesn't spend time with his kids. He doesn't spend time with his new wife. They got married six months ago, and they haven't had a honeymoon yet. He says things keep coming up."

The question of whether Reynolds can empathize with women, blacks, the handicapped and the poor comes up regularly in conversations about him. No one speaks confidently of his ability to feel or understand the long odds facing, for example, a working-class black woman.

"Emotion and sensitivity?" said Reynolds. "Well, I suspect I'm less emotional in one sense, in that I'm not conducive to big highs and big lows. I stay on a fairly even keel."

After he had run the civil rights division at the Justice Department for four years, a reporter asked Reynolds what he had learned. Debra Burstion-Wade, Reynolds' spokesperson, remembered his response: "He said he didn't realize civil rights is such an emotional subject for so many people."

"I've seen Brad cry once in his life," said Lynn Reynolds. "He cried when his father died.

"We came home between the burial in the morning and the memorial service at noon. I noticed Brad had gone outside, and when I looked, I saw that he was standing there crying. He said so many things had not been said between them. I had urged him to go to his father and resolve them, but he was always too busy."

It was apparently from his father that Reynolds learned to use his head instead of his heart. WILLIAM GLASGOW (SCOTTY) REYNOLDS died last year at 75. He had been the head of the patent and trademark division at the DuPont Co. The son of a Tennessee country lawyer, Scotty Reynolds graduated first in his class from Vanderbilt Law School in Nashville and eventually got a job at DuPont in Wilmington, Del., where he met and married heiress Nancy du Pont. A Delaware society-watcher and former newspaper reporter remembers Scotty Reynolds as a brilliant but cold and reserved man who felt his wife's family saw him as "a Tennessee backwoods boy who made good but was still a Tennessee boy. He didn't feel like he was one of them."

Although Brad was the Reynoldses' only son, the father's cool nature extended to him. "There wasn't a whole lot of touching home base with my father," said Reynolds. "He had the approach of hands-off."

Scotty Reynolds worked from dawn to midnight each day in an effort to prove himself as good as DuPont's Ivy League lawyers. There was little time for family. During summers, Brad was shipped off to camps in Maine or sent South to see his grandparents in Tennessee. When he was at home, he spent more time with Willie White, the family's chauffeur, than with his father.

He found something of a father substitute in his grandfather, Eugene (Popsey) du Pont. Brad and Popsey spent weeks together each year hunting and fishing at du Pont's estate, Napaley Green, on the Chester River in Rock Hall, Md.

Reynolds was given a prestigious private education befitting an heir to the du Pont fortune. He attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and graduated from Yale in 1964. He said he was a good student who didn't work hard. Schoolmates recall him as something of an athlete, and they remember his good sense of humor. His father remained distant while Brad was at school except to warn him: "He made it clear that if I messed up, it would come back to haunt him {in Delaware society}. He gave me the clear message he didn't want that."

In law school at Vanderbilt, Reynolds set out to get his father's attention. He vowed to himself that he would graduate first in his class, as his father had done. He became editor of the law review and won a prestigious school medal. But as he reached graduation in 1967, Reynolds found himself 1/100th of a point behind the first-place student and a light year behind in his father's eyes.

After graduation, Reynolds went to New York to find a job. He was horrified to find himself the object of snobbery and discrimination. High grades from Vanderbilt, he was told in job interviews, weren't as impressive in New York as high grades from Ivy League schools. Nevertheless, he was hired at the large, prestigious firm of Sullivan & Cromwell. Like his father before him, he worked impossible hours, and began to withdraw from his family.

Reynolds told himself that the route to success was to always be the one to turn the lights out at night. He would leave home at 6 in the morning and return about midnight. After nearly three years at that pace, Reynolds remembers, there was a painful scene with his 3-year-old son, Brad Jr.

"I was standing in front of the mirror shaving, and my son came up and looked at me. He said, 'Daddy, why do you only come home to shave?' "

Soon after that incident, Reynolds got a call from the man who would become his legal mentor: Erwin N. Griswold, then the solicitor general. Griswold asked Reynolds to come to Washington. Reynolds, who was on the verge of becoming a partner in Sullivan & Cromwell, was reluctant. But he wanted government experience; his father had worked for the government during World War II. In a new town and a new job there might be more time for his family. He joined the solicitor general's staff in 1970.

Ironically, Griswold hired Reynolds as part of an affirmative action program. "I was very anxious," Griswold said, "to broaden the base of the solicitor general's office because I thought it was not wise to have it filled with all Yale, Harvard and Columbia graduates. So I made the effort to find quality graduates of other schools, and I came up with Brad."

Griswold found the young lawyer he had hired "dogged and determined." When Griswold would turn down an argument Reynolds had made, Reynolds would go to the law library and find three cases that supported his position.

Politically, Griswold found Reynolds without an agenda. Today he is surprised by Reynolds' strong, ideologically conservative positions. He is also disturbed by the strong-handed influence Reynolds has exerted on the once-independent solitictor general's office.

"I must say I find him more ideological and more rigid and more ungiving than I would have anticipated," said Griswold, who now rarely sees Reynolds. Their once-close relationship has foundered. Griswold said he has told Reynolds that "there is room in the Constitution for affirmative action after 250 years of discrimination in this country."

Griswold's surprise at the change in Reynolds is echoed by those who knew Reynolds in college. "I would say he was not at all political," said Robert Hetherington, a New Jersey lawyer who was Reynolds' roommate for three years at Yale.

"Brad was never overly political," said Prof. Paul H. Sanders, who taught Reynolds constitutional law at Vanderbilt. "I know he was a person whose background includes some degree of conservatism -- DuPont and Yale -- but he was not politically active, and in discussing the law he always took a balanced point of view."

The non-ideological Reynolds even had conversations with then-attorney general Griffin Bell about a Justice Department job during the Carter administration.

Reynolds' colleagues in the Reagan administration also recall a non-ideological colleague. Justice Department attorney Edward C. Schmults said that when Reynolds was first nominated for the civil rights job, many conservatives were concerned he was too moderate. And Reynolds remembers being asked by William French Smith, then the attorney general, if he was comfortable with the administration's opposition to affirmative action and busing.

"Brad had to rethink the {civil rights} issues while in office," said a former senior Reagan administration official who asked not to be identified. "He never had a honeymoon period with his aides and the press because, unlike Stockman or Kissinger, he had no agenda to put forth when he came into office. Everyone was trying to press their agenda on him, and when he began to make his agenda known as a Reagan conservative, he caught an extra level of flak."

Regardless, Reynolds was delighted to have risen to such a public post, one that might attract his father's attention. He imagined his father reading about him in the newspaper. When he was sworn in by then-Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, Reynolds sent his father a picture of the ceremony with a biblical quote: "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased."

Scotty Reynolds never wrote back. WILLIAM BRADFORD REYNOLDS IS A starchy, tight man. His taut lips and blue-gray eyes contribute to a gaunt face. He is balding, and the hair around his ears is clipped closely. The only jewelry he normally wears is a pinkie ring bearing the Reynolds family crest. His suits are dark and his dark ties, in the Reagan administration tradition, are dotted with small embroidered silhouettes of John Adams, James Madison or Thomas Jefferson. His shoes are from Johnston & Murphy. His leather briefcases are thick and scuffed. He carries a copy of the Constitution in his breast pocket.

He is 45, but his body is hard and flat. He has worked the weight on his 6-foot, 1-inch frame down to 170 pounds, 20 less than he weighed in high school. He gets up at 5 every morning to run four miles, and he plays tennis twice a week. He met his second wife, Clare, 44, at the Arlington Y Tennis and Squash Club, where he plays tennis. She teaches an aerobics class four nights a week at a local church. Their new house in Arlington is kept scrupulously clean. The rugs are white, the tiles in the kitchen and dining area are white, the pastel blues and pinks in the furniture match the hues in the oil paintings that hang on the walls. Muzak-like songs dribble out of speakers built into ceilings throughout the house.

In Reynolds' study, behind his desk, is a collection of finely detailed pewter figures showing the uniforms of every type of soldier, sailor or airman who served in an American fighting unit. On the top of his meticulously neat wood-and-glass desk is a globe set into a device that makes it possible to calculate the time anywhere in the world. Also on the desk are an engraved wooden gavel from the Federalist Society and a special-agent badge issued to Reynolds by the FBI. A bust of the Supreme Court's fourth chief justice, John Marshall, sits on a side table, a set of the scales of justice nearby. Throughout the room are finely carved and painted wooden duck decoys; they remind Reynolds of good days spent with his grandfather years ago.

On a table next to the desk is a telephone that rings constantly when Reynolds is at home. To colleagues, friends and reporters alike, Reynolds' style is abrupt. He speaks in short, carefully considered sentences that seem designed to reveal as little as possible. He is often described as difficult to know, with a demeanor not unlike that of a man from the 19th century: "He has a sense of the importance of principles that in some ways is out of tune with the more expedient ways of the 20th century," said a Reagan administration colleague who asked not to be identified.

Nevertheless, he has not been above accepting expediencies when it comes to position and power at the Justice Department.

In a brassy act of defiance last year, Meese named Reynolds his counselor, effectively giving his colleague the job the Republican-controlled Senate denied him in 1985, plus additional power and control the Senate had not contemplated.

A case could be made that Meese has allowed Reynolds to become the de facto attorney general:

Reynolds controlled and directed the disastrous nominations of Robert H. Bork and then Douglas Ginsburg to the Supreme Court. He personally convinced Ginsburg to withdraw his nomination after he came under fire for having smoked marijuana.

Reynolds led the Justice Department's much-criticized fact-finding inquiry into the Iran-contra affair when it was first uncovered.

Reynolds has become the contact at the Justice Department for top White House officials. He runs the Strategic Planning Board, which sets the agenda for the entire Justice Department.

How Reynolds will use this considerably expanded power to fight civil rights reforms already in place is not yet clear, but his past indicates he will be aggressive. In 1983, he fought the IRS when it removed the tax-free status of Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., because it wouldn't allow blacks in the school. He lost. In 1985, he asked President Reagan to remove requirements that firms doing business with the federal government have affirmative action programs for hiring minorities. White House Chief of Staff Don Regan, worried about the administration's tarnished image with minorities, killed the proposal. Reynolds has tenaciously fought cases involving affirmative action programs all the way to the Supreme Court, where he has almost always lost.

That the nation's highest court has rebuffed his efforts must be especially irksome to Reynolds, because he himself has wanted to sit on the court. When he joined the Justice Department, he had two dreams: being solicitor general of the United States or sitting on the Supreme Court. But both those jobs would require confirmation hearings before the Senate, which is unlikely after his rejection in 1985.

"He knows he will not go any farther," said Clare Reynolds. "At some time he will go into private practice. He was very hurt by the Senate's rejection and by what it meant to his future. I think it's every lawyer's wish to be a judge. That would have been the ultimate for Brad. But he keeps going and going. Brad won't quit." LYNN REYNOLDS TELLS A STORY THAT offers an insight into her former husband's views on civil rights. When they were still together, the Reynoldses were familiar with two other families in their upscale Potomac neighborhood, both of which had daughters in high school who were applying for admission to colleges. One girl was white, the other black. The white teen had a slightly higher grade average than the black teen. When acceptance letters were sent out by the colleges that spring, the black girl found she had won admission to Duke University and the University of Virginia. The white girl had been rejected by both schools.

"Brad was upset about that," said Lynn Reynolds. "He felt for {the white girl}. We talked about it. He doesn't think people should be denied opportunities because of their race. That's racism. Everyone should have the chance to do their best."

In Reynolds' mind, the situation illustrates how his Justice Department ought to proceed in civil rights cases. Before Reynolds' appointment, the department often sided with minorities such as women and blacks. But Reynolds said the department should stand up for "individuals." "It must be remembered that we are all -- each of us -- a minority in this country, a minority of one," he said.

Reynolds argues that to protect that precious individual, he must make sure no one is discriminated against because of race. He thinks the white girl who didn't get into the college of her choice has been discriminated against. "That was very unfortunate," he said. "The problem as I see it is that {the black girl} is not going to do very well in college. And not only academically. She's not going to have the support systems in place to feel comfortable and live up to her maximum potential. That's the reason we have fewer blacks going to college today or opting to go to a black college. It's because of the admissions policies some colleges have put in place. To skew admissions in that way is a disservice. Look at the other side of the coin. The {white} girl is starting off life without the opportunity to go to the institution she chose."

It is a dangerous argument, one that could be used by bigots to reinforce the deprivation whites have historically imposed on black Americans. "In his view of affirmative action, the numerical goals and timetables make quotas inevitable and a violation of the law," said Bill Robinson, director of the National Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "My response to him is that these remedies don't discriminate against whites but redress wrongs done to blacks."

Doesn't Reynolds realize that colleges value an integrated student body as an educational tool and are making efforts to compensate for a national history of blacks and women being purposely excluded from many colleges? "What I resist," Reynolds said, "is the notion that a school can play catch-up ball by bringing in black kids ill-equipped to keep up with the work. Those schools are preoccupied with the quota system, so they can say they've enrolled x amount of minorities in any class. You never hear how many they graduate. You do hear how much trouble they have keeping blacks in the school."

If he could have his way, Reynolds would eliminate all affirmative action programs, end quotas for minority hires and stop busing tomorrow. Instead, he suggests schools can be desegregated by using "magnet" schools that draw bright white students to schools in black areas with specialized programs, and vice versa. To desegregate the work place, he favors making job-training programs available to minorities so they can compete with whites for better jobs and promotions. He argues that affirmative action programs in place have not been effective in decreasing unemployment among minorities. He says only a few well-educated, well-connected minorities are helped by affirmative action programs.

"I maintain that the policies we are pursuing are pro-black," Reynolds said. "OH NO, HE'S NOT HERE, IS HE? BRAD- ford Reynolds, here?"

The slender, white woman, dressed in a conservative blue business suit, was standing in line to check into the Adam's Mark Hotel in Charlotte, N.C. In front of her, Justice Department aide Debra Burstion-Wade had asked the desk clerk to give Reynolds a room.

"Yes, he's here," said Burstion-Wade, responding to the woman.

"Oh, my God. Oh, my God," the woman blurted out, looking from side to side as if to warn people in the lobby.

"You don't even know Brad Reynolds," said Burstion-Wade, who is black.

"I know he's a racist," the woman shot back. "I know he's trying to kill off affirmative action. He's a monster."

Reynolds was not in the lobby. He did not see the disgust on the woman's face, hear her tirade or feel the passionate anger provoked at the mention of his name. When told about it later, he looked exasperated.

"Well, you can't control the attitudes people have," he said. "I don't know who that woman was, but it sounds like someone who had never met me. Someone whose views were shaped by something someone else wrote or said. What inevitably happens with somebody who comes into a job that is controversial is that the individual sort of personifies the controversy. Take my difficulty with busing. If you get down to debating the issue, you find that there are good and reasoned arguments on both sides and it's not nearly as volatile a debate. Attacking me, now that does generate a lot of emotion." ::