I was surprised to read the other day that James Meredith, who singlehandedly integrated the University of Mississippi back in 1962, now thinks integration is a "sham," "the biggest con job ever pulled on any people," and "a plot by white liberals to gain black political power for themselves and their wild ideas, and for a few black bourgeoisie . . . . "

Some people may not remember what James Meredith did during the height of the civil rights movement or its importance in American history. Stepping into Ole Miss with a few books under his arm, his lone presence sent shock waves through the South, sparked riots among whites and jubilation among blacks, and forced President Kennedy to send 30,000 troops to protect him and to enforce the law of the land. Later, in 1966, as he marched to protest segregation, he was shot down by a stranger.

For those reasons, it's hard to understand why he recently said in an interview in The Washington Post that he now thinks the danger, blood and tension he encountered on those historic journeys were so worthless that he has completely changed directions.

For the undeniable fact is that, while big problems remain to be solved, progress in the long struggle of blacks gaining justice and the full rights of citizenship have been made in the last 20 years. Some blacks, speaking out of personal and contemporary frustration occasionally say that black people were better off then, but that's just not true.

Twenty years ago, there was only a handful of blacks in the American political arena; today there are some 6,000 black elected officials, including more than 250 mayors, of cities including Birmingham, Atlanta, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Chicago.

Twenty years ago, only a small fraction of black families earned on par with white families; but the income level for black families with both parents present increased faster than that for white married couples during the 1970s. Between 1970 and 1980, the median years of schooling for all black women rose from 10.2 to 12.1 years and the proportion employed as professionals increased 45 percent between 1967 and 1980 while the proportion working in service declined by 30 percent. The number of blacks attending college has increased overall; voting rates are up and growing.

"Don't ignore the progress in education for black children," says Michigan State University education professor David Cohen. "Black schools have more money and test scores seem to be improving. Such progress would have been unimaginable 20 to 30 years ago."

So why does James Meredith say these and other gains of the civil rights movement do not matter? I don't know what has led him to this radical reversal. I can understand Meredith's pain, however, for while things are better, it does often seem that the pace of change is so slow that one step is taken forward only to be followed by a leap backward.

Poverty is on the rise, due to an increase in the number of households headed by single females, and often exacting a high emotional toll as well. Unemployment still is approximately three times higher among blacks, causing many social problems, but that is partly due to automation, government policy and other changes in the national and global economy. And certainly civil rights gains are now being threatened by actions such as the Reagan administration's sorry enforcement record.

At one level, Meredith's arguments for self-help and self-reliance as a reliable guide for progress contain fragments of truth; he is, in fact, echoing a chord that is being increasingly sounded by even black liberals. But to intimate that life overall was better in black -- or white -- America before the civil rights movement is simply not rational.

Integration, like segregation, poses new problems and generates new anxieties, some of which black Americans have never encountered before. Integration can cause considerable strain on all sides; it makes the world more complex. But that does not justify Meredith's suggestion that because the civil rights movement did not answer all of the questions for all of the preceding centuries and for succeeding generations, it was no good.

Life has dealt James Meredith many blows, as it has all of us. But overall his statements speak more to one man's individual pain, suffering and fury than to the failings -- and promises -- of this movement-in-progress.