When President Reagan first came into office, he immediately began a practice described by many journalists as putting foxes in charge of henhouses: James Watt at Interior, and initially Terrel Bell at Education. But the practice was raised to an art form with his appointments at the Department of Justice. Edwin Meese III and William Bradford Reynolds are foxes, and their cunning has been revealed in some remarks they have made in recent weeks.

Attorney General Meese likened supporters of numerical goals for hiring blacks to an earlier generation of Americans who argued that "slavery was good not only for slaves but for society."

More recently, Reynolds, the Justice Department civil rights policy chief, said he is following in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr. and other 1960s civil rights leaders. "We are basing our policies on the same policies they were advancing and promoting," he said, while today's civil rights leaders have "distorted and twisted" those policies into discriminatory quotas.

These statements, which are cut from the same cloth, have infuriated Americans who resent such crude attempts to rewrite American history. The civil rights community harshly criticized both men.

"Mean-spirited . . . irreverent and insulting," sputtered Dr. James Turner, director of the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University. "Having little real concern for social justice for black people, minorities and women," says Turner, "they use such tricks to try to pull the wool over the American people's eyes to cover what they are really doing."

Speculating that Meese and Reynolds' tact is motivated by public relations concerns and designed to clean up their images -- especially in view of the Senate's scorching rejection of Reynolds' bid to become the No. 3 man at Justice -- Turner notes, "They don't want to continue the tradition of government as a responsible agency providing national leadership in line with our cherished constitutional values and ideals of social equality."

For the record, Mr. Reynolds, the civil rights movement had a two-part objective. First, it was designed to break down racial segregation and open up society to achieve minimal access for blacks. And second, recognizing that grievous imbalances had accrued during the long history of segregation and oppression, it sought to correct the system by balancing the scales in an affirmative way. One objective would be quite meaningless if it was not buttressed by the second.

Another gross misrepresentation is Reynolds' statement that civil rights leaders have "twisted and distorted" civil rights policies into discriminatory quotas. The '60s leaders understood that real opportunity would be assured only when old racially motivated behavior was constrained by close monitoring. "In the real world, without these kinds of commitments and priorities," observes Indianapolis Republican Mayor William H. Hudnut III, "people tend to be left out if they're not white males."

And it isn't only in the employment area that erasing formal barriers does not automatically eliminate informal systems of racial exclusion. According to one recent report, segregated housing is as widespread now as it ever was.

His claims to be a King disciple who has been to the mountaintop are vintage Reynolds feinting with a velvet glove. Such tactics will mask neither his iron fist nor the serious consequences of Justice Department policies for blacks, women and workers.

The latest brandishing of the iron fist is the current Meese-Reynolds attempt to gut an executive order on hiring by federal contractors by abolishing minority hiring goals and timetables.

Surprisingly, however, the Reagan Cabinet dealt them a setback by bucking the issue up to the president without a firm recommendation. And while Reagan is not expected to settle the issue for several weeks, a formidable array of opponents has come out in favor of the executive order. They include Republican leaders of the House and Senate and, according to Fortune magazine, a majority of America's top corporate leaders.

Moreover, a recent Harris poll showed that 75 percent of the American people favor federal affirmative action programs for minorities and women "provided there are no rigid quotas." (Regulations affixed to the order specifically preclude the use of "rigid and inflexible quotas.")

The president can continue putting foxes in charge of henhouses. But even when they cackle, they can't make us believe they're really chickens.