McEva Bowser was a little incredulous. Winding up a tour of the Virginia State Capitol, she stopped in a committee room to watch this year's launching of the annual Martin Luther King Day bill.

The bill, to make Jan. 15 a state holiday in King's honor as a trade-off for the existing Election Day holiday, passed the Senate General Laws Committee by a 10-to-4 vote. If past years are any indication, it will also clear the Senate. It is in the House that the King bill, which has been offered repeatedly by Sen. L. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond), usually runs into trouble.

Bowser, a curriculum specialist at Richmond's Robert E. Lee school and one of two dozen blacks who came to support the King bill, was not prepared for the vehemence of opposition to the holiday. There was the argument that King was not a Virginian, that he was a Communist, that he was not a true Christian.

But there was also the argument that blacks in Virginia should learn that they have to earn respect. "It should be voluntary," said George Burruss, a spokesman for Independent Virginians for Political Action. "You have to behave yourself, be a good citizen. That's the road black people should take. Let them show they can be respectable . . . and then they'll get somewhere."

Bowser, who had stayed to hear the debate after her colleagues left to go back to school, was stunned. "It's hard to contain yourself," she said later. "I am surprised that people stand up on the floor and say those kinds of things."