Late summer talk in this tiny Sumter County town quickly turns to a black community activist and the punch he threw at the county school superintendent, who happens to be white.

Few people in Livingston, the county seat, agree on the details of the episode involving Wendell Paris and Superintendent Hilton J. Ishee.

But many see the squabble, now a matter before a local court, as a dramatic example of a subtle, long-running racial battle for economic and political power in which the federal government plays a part.

The larger conflict centers around the work of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC), of which Paris is a member and former staff official.

FSC, like Paris and many of those who run it, is a product of the 1960s civil rights movement.

When the federation was founded in 1967, mechanization and politics were pushing blacks off southern farms by the thousands.

Machines reduced the need for field hands; the struggle for voting rights often led to retaliatory evictions of black sharecroppers.

Many blacks followed the lead of some hard-pressed white farmers and organized agricultural cooperatives, hoping to pool resources, labor and materials and make economic survival a less desperate affair. But the early black co-ops lacked the financial and technical backing to succeed.

FSC, a federally and privately funded self-help group, was created to fill the gap. The organization started with 22 small farm co-ops. It now represents 133 low-income, predominantly black farming, small business and health care cooperatives throughout the Deep South.

However, many white political leaders here and in other places where the federation works say FSC has strayed far from its original objectives and has -- with federal help -- become a potent political force.

"They are involving themselves in local election matters . . . They are running for offices . . . Their activities amount to nothing more than government-supported activism," said Robert P. Upchurch, a prominent local attorney and 27-year member of the Sumter County School Board, who also helped write charters for the town's segregated private schools.

FSC officials deny that they are fielding candidates for office or otherwise using a federally supported program to advance political causes.

"The political initiatives -- running for the school board, for example -- are being taken by many of the local folks we help," said FSC Executive Director Charles O. Prejean.

"I suppose that we can be considered something of a catalyst in that we are trying to help people become economically independent, which is threatening to some people here. But we are in no way violating our mandate by directly involving ourselves in political matters," Prejean said.

The distinction is lost on many whites, said John Neal, editor of the local newspaper, the Home Record.

"There is a suspicion on the part of most of the white people in Sumter that FSC is just ripping off the government," Neal said.

"From the very beginning, the white establishment here believed that the federation would be used for political activism, and they feel that their fears have been pretty well borne out," he said.

Contributing to the fears and suspicions of local whites is the racial makeup of Sumter and a string of about 17 other counties stretching across the middle of Alabama.

The counties have long been known collectively as the Alabama Black Belt, originally for the region's rich, alluvial soil but in recent decades for the growth in black population. Most of the counties are 40 to 60 percent black: Sumter and neighboring Greene County are more than 70 percent black.

In the early 70's blacks took over Green County government, once exclusively the plaything of whites. In Sumter, however, whites still control all key public offices.

Many whites believe that FSC is working for a black political takeover of Sumter County under the guise of its economic self-help program, editor Neal said. And he said much of the local white community deeply resents what it perceives to be the federal government's role -- through its Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) and Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) programs, for examples -- in supporting FSC's political efforts.

"Nobody wants what happened in Greene County to happen here," Neal said. "When you put that together with a lot of people's feelings that a lot of federal money is being wasted or misspent on this [FSC] program, you can understand the situation."

Local white leaders took their concerns to Congress, where they petitioned for an investigation of FSC and its use of federal money. In response, Rep. Richard C. Shelby, a Democrat from nearby Tuscaloosa, met with Sumpter County officials and then convinced the congressional General Accounting Office to audit FSC finances.

The results of the audit -- conducted this summer -- have yet to be released.

"We're confident that when something does come out, it'll show that we've been operating in a professional and responsible matter," said Prejean, the executive director.

"They're fighting us tooth and nail to get us out of the area because they don't like our kind of work. That's what this GAO audit is all about . . . They figured that with niggers handling a couple of million dollars, somebody's just got to be stealing," he said.

FSC has come under fire from white officials in other states and counties, but the attack in Sumter is by far the most serious, Prejean said. He speculated that the intensity of the local opposition stems from the federation's purchase of 1,325 acres of land eight years ago in the farming community of Epes, about 10 miles up the road from here. FSC has since established its program headquarters on the property.

The $500,000 purchase was bitterly contested in court by a group of white developers who wanted the land. FSC won.

"I don't think the local white establishment has ever forgiven us for that," Prejean said. "And the money we get -- they've always been pretty upset about that, too."

An estimated $1.78 million of the federation's $1.88 million in grants and contracts for fiscal 1979 comes from the federal government. Membership dues account for an additional $200,000.

The largest single contribution, $600,778, is from Action, the federal volunteer service agency that oversees VISTA. CETA provides the second largest federal grant, totaling $350,000.

Other federal funds come from various offices in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and from the Legal Services Corp.

Nearly $500,000 of the VISTA money goes directly for upkeep and training of 110 volunteers who have been working with federation members on small farm energy conservation, health care, and agricultural small business projects, according to FSC records. The remainder is eaten up by administrative and incidental costs.

"We actually lose money on the VISTA grant because we have to use other funds to help make up for the shortfall-caused administrative costs of the volunteer program," Prejean said.

"But we need the VISTA's. Nearly all of them are local people who know the area's problems and who know how to communicate with the people we try to serve," he said.

Most of the CETA money goes into wages for formerly long-term unemployed people who have been given jobs in FSC's weatherization, nutrition and housing programs, according to federation records.

FSC partisans contend that a fair assessment of federation spending would necessarily be subjective, and the product of a willingness to accommodate differing interpretations of "success."

For example, an FSC co-op member in Greensboro, Ala., that manufactures lingerie is not successful in strictly profit-making terms. The owners, Louis and Mildred Black, readily say as much.

Greensboro, though, is one of those small, predominantly black southern towns with chronically high unemployment. Most of the able-bodied men, blacks and whites, have to leave town to find work. Most of the women can't find gainful employment at all.

"So, if success can be defined as helping people to find self-worth through working for the first time in their lives, then I guess you'd have to say we're pretty damned successful," said Louis Black, who started his business in 1967 with a personal investment of $2,000.

Black's shop, the Greene-Hale Sewing Center, employs up to 75 women at about $3 an hour at peak operation. But he said it is difficult to keep the one-floor plant humming because local banks consistently refuse to loan him operating capital.

"We have very good relationships with the banks here," he added facetiously. "Although we've sold our products to stores like J. C. Penney's and Sears and the L. V. Miles Co. in New York, the banks won't let us have any money until after we've produced, found a buyer for, and then transported the garments."

Black accused the banks of racial discrimination.

Most of the 7,000 individual farmers who belong to FSC groups own or rent spreads averaging 65 acres. They are not, by any means, high-volume producers when considered one by one.

But, working through the various cooperatives, they have produced more, sold their products together at higher prices, and reduced operation costs through volume purchases of seed and fertilizer.

Profit is usually marginal and regarded as supplemental income. For example, some co-op farmers say they can increase their annual net income by as much as $2,500 through group growing, selling and buying.

But they say it's the psychic rewards, the feeling of finally getting a grip on their own economic lives, that they value most.

"See these peas?" said Susie Walker, an 80-year-old federation member in Mashulaville, Miss. "I grows 'em and sells 'em, myself. "I also keeps plenty in my freezer [obtained through FSC] for myself and my neighbors.

"With the help of the Man Upstairs and these [FSC] people, I'm gonna keep on growin 'em and sellin 'em," she said.

That kind of pride usually translates into political action, federation officials said.

Action director Sam Brown, who along with deputy director John Lewis toured FSC projects in late August, agreed.

"When people begin to realize basic problems facing them, and when they begin to enjoy some success in solving those problems, they begin to think politically," Brown said. "We don't plan it that way. But we don't discourage it when it happens, either."

Counters lawyer Upchurch: By not discouraging political activism on the part of federation members, the government is encouraging it on the part of FSC officials.

"That's why they're always out there arguing for more of everything," he said.

He cited Wendell Paris' involvement with FSC in a push for black jobs on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway project.

Paris, who admits he struck the county school superintendent after what he calls "a serious provocation," is chairman of the minority People's Council on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.

The federation has worked closely with the council, providing some money and manpower, in an effort to get blacks 40 percent of the construction jobs on the $1.6 billion development. FSC argues that the 253-mile waterway passes through a region with a population of 40 percent black and that blacks should therefore get 40 percent of the jobs.

Much to the discomfort of local officials, both FSC and the council have charged that black job seekers have been discriminated against in the waterway development, the largest public works project now under construction in the United States.

If FSC would stick to social and economic services, "without involving itself in politics, most of the white people here would be all for the federation," said Neal, the newspaper editor.

John Zippert, the federation's program director, laughed at that. "Mr. Neal must not have ever read Frederick Douglass," he said, referring to one of the foremost voices of the abolition movement.

"Mr. Neal wants social and economic . . . progress . . . without politics . . . Douglass would have told them that that is the same thing as wanting 'the crops without plowing up the ground . . . rain . . . without thunder . . . the ocean without the roar of its many waters.'"