Patricia R. Harris, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, was warmly applauded last night when she told the audience at the NAACP Freedom Fund dinner that black protest is an idea whose time is long gone. Everyone seemed to like the way she put it.

"I've been in both positions, protester and exerciser of power," said Harris. "I will tell you firsthand, power is better."

Power -- economic and political -- was on the minds of many of the more than 850 persons who attended the $50-a-plate dinner at the Washington Hilton Hotel sponsored by the District's NAACP chapter.

The speakers, including Mayor Marion Barry and the Rev. Edward A. Hailes, president of the local chapter, expressed fears that new initiatives by blacks to gain economic power in the city have been unfairly attacked. The audience seemed to share their concern.

Efforts by the city to help blacks obtain equity in downtown developement were applauded. Some developers in the city have expressed concern about the potential for abuse of a city requirement that development projects have minority participants.

"In America, black people are still catching hell," Barry said. "Until the masses of our people stop catching hell we're going to need the NAACP. It hasn't been that long in this town that you couldn't go and try on clothes in Garfinckel's. It hasn't been that long."

Barry, without naming anyone, described those who criticized blacks for gaining ownership in downtown development for little or no cash investment. He said those persons are changing the rules in the middle of the game.

Hailes agreed. "So long as the arrangements between business persons do not involve improprieties or violations of the law, the NAACP recognizes that such arrangements are commonplace in real estate development . . . it is unfair to expect a higher standard of conduct or contribution from black men and women," he said.

Secretary Harris, who used most of her speech to urge support for President Carter, asked for an end to critism of black officals. "Let us stop cannibalizing our black leaders," she said. "They are not perfect . . . but they are black."

Attorney Samuel C. Jackson, chairman of the dinner, said fewer whites were present this year. He said many whites had expressed oppostion to the NAACP's endorsement of a statement of black independence in foreign affairs following the resignation in August of Andrew Young as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Others said the lack of participation also may have been because this year's dinner cost $15 a plate more than last year.