As a community that made fairness, decency, justice and civility part of its ethos, is Montgomery County now approaching "darkness at noon"? While the attention of the county is rightly riveted on hate groups such as the Klan and the Nazi Party, and while racial tensions increase, there is a greater danger to the county's political health: the current way in which too many of our citizens are capitulating to "nouveau mossbacks"--the new political forces that would return the county to the old racial order.

There was a time when the thrust, tempo and leadership of the county beckoned citizens to a blooming Shangri-La, a budding Camelot. No task of building the human dimensions in the community was considered too great; the goal was an inclusive society. But no more.

The merchants of fear and calumny are attempting to shatter that dream.

Let me be specific. In the last four years, by design, the political leadership of the school board has managed to squander and dissipate the educational energy of its citizens by pitting group against group and neighborhood against neighborhood.

This is the scorecard:

* Board members were accused by a hearing examiner for the State Board of Education of being arbitrary in their decisions on school closures and of violating their own policies. With vengeance and spite they fired their minority relations monitoring committee because it was not obsequious in the tradition of antebellum blacks.

* When closing schools, they have given preferential treatment to those in the neighborhoods of favored board members.

* For the first time, the county school board has been used as a proving ground for the congressional candidacy of one member of its majority who has consistently elevated political ambition over educational priorities.

* The board's majority has ushered in a studied disrespect for the highly qualified professional staff of the county's public schools, seeking to interfere with administration rather than to make policy.

The board's majority has made blacks in particular the target of its animus--the magnet to divert the attention of whites from its educational failings and the anesthetic to deaden racial sensitivity and fairness.

Neighborhoods have awakened, too late, to discover that it was not only blacks whose educational objectives the board deferred, but also the goals of any group that dared to place the educational needs of children above board members' personal or political ambitions--or aspirations of the board's political machine.

Even worse is the timidity of many people who have surrended their independence and abandoned honorable opposition. Some saw it as expedient to comply, to go along, to ask no questions, to make no public outcry. But those who deserve the most blame are the private complainers-- the people who are brave in private but who have never raised a public voice of dissent.

The main character in Arthur Koestler's brilliant novel, "Darkness at Noon," is N.S. Rubashov, a former high party official in a police state. He is jailed on trumped-up charges and, in the atmosphere of the infamous Moscow trials, he ends up eagerly confessing to things he never did. He breaks and becomes his own accuser. That is the way some of the jaded "progressives" have behaved in the current political-educational climate. They have abandoned everything decent that they once advocated and now, like Rubashov, go beyond their accusers in confessing their wrongs.

Last week, board member Marian Greenblatt, one of the recent declared aspirants for federal political office charged that the current holder of that office, Rep. Michael Barnes, is a supporter of the "Palestine Liberation Organization and a supporter of terrorists in Latin America." This political Alice in Wonderland rhetoric has its genesis in the belief that the county has a disproportionate share of gullible cretins among the electorate.

If I seem despondent, it is not because I believe that we are defeated. There are two people on these matters who represent the best that is decent in our county. One is Harriet Bernstein, a former school board member; the other is Hanley Norment, a past president of the local chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. Each understands democracy, each is a student of government and neither has political aspirations. Both are courageous people who actively uphold their beliefs and publicly contest corrosive and noxious attempts to demean and debase our county's reputation. As long as there are such people in Montgomery County, we are not yet at our "darkness at noon." They are making it what the late Howard Thurman called the "luminous darkness." This is our hope.