The irony is that Barbara C. Jordan, the former representative from Texas, and William Coleman Jr., the former secretary of transportation, are both eminently qualified themselves to be nominees to the Supreme Court.

Indeed, after the two testified with such a spirit of command against Judge Robert H. Bork's nomination on Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee's admirably fair chairman, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., suggested that Coleman would be an outstanding justice. But the cabinet official under President Ford, remembering how racial bias has circumscribed black opportunity, responded modestly. Charles Houston, an early architect of civil rights strategy, he said, and William Hastie, the first black federal judge, were far superior to him during their lifetimes and could also have graced the court with honor and erudition.

But while the testimony of those two powerful people encompassed judicial philosophy and legal precedent, it was their personal experience and knowledge of hidden history that brought passion and shed new light on why blacks are so fearful of Bork's elevation to the court.

In their statements, Coleman and Jordan went out of their way to fling back allegations of supporters of Bork that those opposing his nomination were just die-hard liberals out to distort Bork's record. Coleman, a Republican and sometime supporter of President Reagan, wanted committee members to know that those opposing Bork "are doing it for responsible reasons," and Jordan prefaced her remarks with the caveat that hers "was no kneejerk position." (Lest one underestimate the tactics of the right wing, however, there are those who say that Bork supporters also had a hand in fanning the fires of controversy that burned out Biden's presidential campaign yesterday.)

A highlight of Coleman's testimony was his fear that Bork would turn back the clock on civil rights and affect gains some take for granted if he were elevated to the high court. "With the exception of Brown v. Board of Education," he told the committee, "{Bork} has criticized and rejected every landmark civil rights case since that time {1954}."

Anchoring her opposition on "living 51 years as a black American born in the South and determined to be heard by the majority community," Jordan went on to give examples of the special role of the court in the lives of blacks as a bulwark when legislatures and governors refuse to act.

"We once had a poll tax in Texas," she said. "That poll tax was used to keep people from voting. The Supreme Court said it was wrong -- outlawed it -- outlawed it. Robert Bork said the case was wrongfully decided . . . . "

As committee members listened in rapt attention, Jordan continued with a power that simultaneously transcended race and took the collective fears of blacks to a universal level:

"Judge Bork has this theory: "If you can't find that right within the letters of the Constitution explicitly, it's not there, it doesn't exist. I believe that the presence of that point of view on the Supreme Court . . . places at risk individual rights. It is a risk we should not afford -- we don't have to."

This element of the riskiness of Bork on the Supreme Court is at the heart of why blacks are in such opposition to him. And The New Yorker, in a recent article, correctly measured the high stakes in this current battle over the court's future:

"Judge Bork has made it so clear how he would decide nearly all major constitutional cases that have come before the court, not just in the last 30 years but long before, that certainly for the first time in this century, and perhaps in the history of the Republic, the Senate is being asked not to confirm a man but to establish on the court a doctrine and a set of concrete decisions, most of which are reversals of established law and precedent.

"And Bork's published work seems to set forth methods, certainties, and positions that, while they may be consistent with what Bork calls 'representative democracy,' are so radically at odds with the Constitution as to amount to a rigid ideological system of his own."

Despite Bork's recantations during his Senate testimony last week, no thinking person is convinced that he has suddenly or substantively changed a legal philosophy that took him a lifetime to formulate. With patterns in supreme law for the rest of this century at stake, his nomination is a risk I am not prepared to take.

But Jordan best voiced the intensely personal opposition of many blacks in her view of the court's role: "I like the idea that the Supreme Court . . . is the last bulwark of protection for our freedoms . . . . I don't want to see the argument made that there is no right to privacy on the court. I don't want that argument made. And the only way to prevent its being made is to deny Judge Bork membership on the court."