In the middle of the night on Sept. 24, bright light invaded Ndefru Nkwenti's sleep. When the African diplomat went to the window of his new home in Silver Spring, he saw a 12-foot-high cross flaming in his yard.

Nkwenti's family was not an isolated target. Cross burnings, vandalism of religious institutions and other incidents of racial and religious violence and intimidation soared in Montgomery during 1981, nearly quadrupling the 25 such incidents reported the previous year.

"Montgomery's increase corresponds with a sharp increase at the national level," said Amy Goott, assistant regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. "Our 1981 audit has shown that for the third year in a row the incidents have more than doubled. Initially, the high increases took me by surprise, because overt anti-Semitism has not occurred with such intensity in years."

In Maryland alone, 315 hate incidents were recorded from January through November 1981. Cross burnings during that time occurred in many areas but were concentrated in Harford County with 14 burnings and Baltimore County with 16. By the end of the year, Montgomery had reported 11 cross burnings. A state human relations official said that last year, for the first time, hate incidents and one cross burning were reported in the Eastern Shore counties.

Hate mail and literature were other tools frequently used to spread fear and hostility. Last year, Ku Klux Klan activist Richard Savina, self-proclaimed "imperial wizard" of the Invisible Empire in Maryland, attempted to blow up the NAACP headquarters in Catonsville. He was arrested in May 1981, charged with conspiracy in the bombing attempt and with three counts of cross burning. At his trial last August, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison, the maximum penalty.

The rate of incidents in neighboring Prince George's County appears lower than in Montgomery. Twenty-four racial and religious hate incidents were reported in 1981, including two cross burnings. In fiscal 1981, which ended June 30, nine cross burnings were reported in Prince George's. William A. Welch Sr., executive director of the county's Human Relations Commission, said "we're not sure if the difference between here and Montgomery County is in actual behavior or in the reporting systems. They have a larger network that reports a wider variety of incidents. While we aren't experiencing an increase in racist incidents, we aren't seeing a decline either."

Bonnie Beck, chief of community relations at the Prince George's commission, said that "the statistics do not indicate the real number of incidents. Some incidents, like graffiti and damage to property, are just seen as pranks and don't get reported, yet they are serious problems. I definitely recommend that any incident suspected of being of a racial nature be reported to the police and to our office. Ignoring it will not make the problem go away."

Throughout the nation, blacks are the primary targets of extremism. But in Montgomery, blacks and Jews are the targets, with 42 of the 98 incidents that occurred in 1981 cited as clearly anti-Semitic. Nineteen swastikas or Stars of David were seen painted on buildings. A Jewish school was vandalized repeatedly, and children going to and from the school were verbally harrassed. Eleven cross burnings were reported.

The majority of the Montgomery acts were committed by teen-agers, according to a county police spokesperson. Joan Weiss, community relations specialist with the Montgomery Human Relations Commission, points out that because involvement of teens in extremist activities is a relatively new phenomenon, experts are searching for explanations for this behavior.

"We do know, however, that upsurges in Klan activity occur during times of social change. The existing social changes, along with economic problems, and social cutbacks create an environment ripe for scapegoating," Weiss said.

Goott, of the ADL, points out that "on many occasions our office has noted increases in unorganized incidents shortly following heavy media coverage of the Klan or other extremist groups." Goott doesn't want the media to ignore the Klan but "we would like them to think about possible community reactions to the coverage of extremist groups and to give more play to the positive work being done to halt the incidents."

Goott says that talk-show interviewers should be well-prepared "so they are able to expose the inconsistencies in the Klan's arguments. Youth who can't find jobs or are dissatisfied with school could well be incited by the Klan's claims that minorities are taking jobs or ruining schools. Such claims need be refuted."

County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist said in a speech earlier this year that, "while we do not believe that hate incidents are the fruits of a single conspiracy, they do appear to be actions inspired by the Klan, the Nazis and their ilk."

Links to the Klan are noted by Corporal Phil Caswell of the Montgomery County police. "We have come across Klan literature that has been distributed in our investigations of cases like harassment, vandalism and cross burnings," he said.

Responses to the violence from the Montgomery County and state governments have gained national attention and are being looked to as models for other areas, according to Goott. Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes last March appointed a task force composed of representatives of state agencies and the legislature to meet monthly to seek ways to deal with the incidents. Gilchrist, one of the few local executives to speak out on the problem, called together community agency representatives and launched a campaign to try to end the violence. A committee of business, labor, religious and government leaders was formed to propose solutions and to educate the public. Weiss then was appointed to do the committee's staff work. She promotes citizen involvement through the Network of Neighbors, whose 400 members are available to visit victims of hate incidents and give them support.

The Human Relations Department of the Montgomery County Public School system now holds workshops on racist and religious violence for teachers and staff members, and social studies classes have covered the study of hate groups and why they are antithetical to democratic traditions. In addition, says a school system spokesman, school officials try to ensure that every incident is reported to police promptly, that any graffiti and racial or religious epithets are wiped out immediately, and that prompt action "in terms of suspensions and conferences with parents" is taken when students are involved in hate incidents.

On July 1, a new Maryland state law, HB 1001, upgraded the punishment for the burning of a religious symbol from a misdemeanor to a felony. Penalties were increased from one year in prison to three years. Eight persons, all juveniles, were arrested last year in connection with Montgomery County cross burnings.