U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green ruled yesterday that the controversial 1974 promotion of a black D.C. firefighter to the department's second-ranked position was legitimate and not the result of racial bias or pressure to elevate blacks at the expense of white firemen.

Green rejected race discrimination claims brought in a two-year-old lawsuit by five senior white firefighters, who contended they were passed over in the selection process because of race and who argued they were later effectively forced to resign.

Although an affirmative action program was being drafted in 1974 that "suggests at least some pressure to improve the lot of minorities," the judge said evidence produced by the city in a trial last fall convinced her the plan was not a factor in the promotion.

The complaint focused on the selection of Jefferson Lewis, a black, for the position of assistant fire chief for operations. Lewis, a battalion fire chief, was nominated for the job by then-fire chief Burton Johnson and selected by then-mayor Walter E. Washington, both also black.

The lawsuit was filed by four white deputy fire chiefs -- Sidney Bishopp, John Breen, William Q. Stickley and Joseph Zeis, all of whom outranked Lewis -- and a white battalion fire chief, Floyd Yocum.

Under District law, Green noted, promotions above the rank of battalion fire chief are the province of the mayor. No fire department regulation requires advancement according to rank at that level.

"The fact that Chief Johnson and Mayor Washington . . . are black," Green said, "is by itself insufficient to raise the suspicion" that the city discriminated against whites.

"Furthermore, there is no evidence of irregular acts of favoritism or disproportionate promotion of blacks within the fire department. In August 1974, the upper levels of the fire department were dominated by whites, and until the Lewis promotion the only black to have advanced above battalion chief in the 1970s was Burton Johnson . . . . "

The judge said Johnson testified at the trial that Lewis had "impressive standing" as a top candidate for promotion and identified "qualities perceived as weaknesses" in four of the white fire officials involved in the lawsuit.

"When making his selection Johnson believed that Stickley and Bishopp lacked essential firmness and decisiveness . . . and doubted the abilities of Zeis and Yocum to adequately resolve problems . . . " Green said.

She said Johnson "acknowledged the competence of Breen," but testified that his "skills were greatly needed" in his job as fire marshal.

Green also rejected claims by the plaintiffs that they became the targets of "retaliatory harassment" after they complained about Lewis' promotion to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.