IN THE PICTURE, they sat in the front row of the courtroom, their legs crossed at the knees, big smiles on their faces, their cheeks puffed with chewing tobacco. They laughed for the cameras, swaggered even as they sat, letting you know by their sheer confidence that no jury of their peers was going to find them guilty. They were, after all, white men.

This was Mississippi, 1964, a place called Philadelphia. Three young men, civil rights workers, had been killed and the men arrested had been marched into the courthouse. There, they laughed and posed for the camera-big men, booted men, wide-grinned men who knew their guilt or innocence was nowhere near as important to the jury as their race. It was that simple.

The picture comes to mind now because some people think that something similar-but by no means as grave-has happened in Washington. Here, though, the tables have been turned and it was, people say, a black man who sat back, confident that he would be exonerated in court on account of his race. He had been accused of hitting and then kicking a white woman. Eight witnesses said they saw him do it. Only one witness contradicted this version of the events-the defendant himself. He said shw swung at him first. Some jurors laughed. They acquitted him anyway.

The case involves a woman named Ellen Feingold, the director of the Department of Transportation's office of civil rights, and her once and maybe future subordinate, Vincent Oliver. When the incident in question happened last September, Feingold was in the process of firing Oliver for incompetence-something that had been tried before without success. In the earlier firing, William T. Coleman, then the DOT secretary, had sacked Oliver for alleged incompetence but the action was overturned on appeal. Now Feingold was trying.

What happened next is in dispute. According to the eight witnesses, most of whom were black, Feingold was talking to a secretary when Oliver walked in. She said good morning and got a shot in the mouth by way of a response. She crumbled and Oliver kicked her in the pelvis, breaking it, she said. He also punched another man who tried to intervene, the witnesses said. A policeman testified that Oliver then turned himself in, saying he had lost his temper and hit his boss.

At the trial, Oliver said he said no such thing. He testified that his boss had bit him and that he had defended himself, striking her with the back of his hand in self-defense. His lawyer, Harry T. Alexander, characterized Oliver as a persecuted black man-a man of strength and pride and considerable achievement who was being destroyed by "the system" on account of race. Far from being the defendant, he was the victim-fired once, exonerated then fired once again.

It' hard to know exactly what to make of it. Alexander, the defense counsel, says he shredded the prosecution, impeaching witness after witness, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that there was a government conspiracy that included the police ad was designed to "get" his client. He pointed out that black juries in Washington have had no trouble convicting black persons in the past and indeed some notable examples come easily to mind-Rep. Charles Diggs, for instance. Alexander says he won the case on the merits and not on the question of race and, while other observers dispute that, you do have to wonder why it was that race became so obvious an answer to some people. I mean, lots of apparently open-and-shut cases collapse in the courtroom with race being no factor at all.

But other observers of the trial would dispute what Alexander says. To them, the case was an example of what one prosecutor called "the Kunta Kinta" defense, courtroom jargon referring to the hero of the book and TV series "Roots". What they mean by that is that the issue of race is raised and allowed to become paramount, that the jury, in effect mullifies the law, believing the defendant guilty as charged, but justified in his actions. They therefore find him not guilty.

So it is hard to know without sitting through the thial itself just what happened and to know, further, if what happened is typical or significant, or even a cause for alarm. It makes you think, though, of the depth of racial mistrust- "the 400 years of persecution" mentioned by one prosecutor-and it makes you think also how the protection of the law can sometimes be denied on account of race. Make what you want of it, but strictly for me it reminded me of something I've seen before.

A picture taken in Mississippi.