IN THE TENSE THROES of local Washington's political adolescence -- when civil rights, antiwar and home rule upheavals shook the streets as well as those who tried to govern here -- there was a special underground ministry of plugged-in black and white religious leaders whose intelligence network and keen social senses helped keep the city's lid from blowing off entirely. Some worked best behind the scenes, and others contributed through the visibility they enjoyed as prominent civic leaders. One who did it both ways -- but whose independent vision distanced him from those who eventually made their way to seats of local power -- was the Rev. Channing E. Phillips, who died of cancer Wednesday at the age of 59.

When congregations of black church-goers were still shaky about getting too involved in citywide political action -- to say nothing of the anti-Vietnam War movement, it was Mr. Phillips who spoke with eloquent bitterness about police brutality, poor housing and other outrages of the colonial days here. He was chosen by Robert Kennedy to head an antiwar convention-delegation ticket that defeated the Johnson-Humphrey Democrats, and he gained national political attention in 1968 as the first black ever nominated at a major party convention, with support from 18 state delegations. His alliances with black poor and white rich left him without an actual constituency to win election as the District of Columbia's first elected delegate to the U.S. House in 1971.

If Mr. Phillips was at times the political loner -- too aloof for some, too sarcastic for others -- he was committed by both religious conviction and constant intellectual engagement to an economically healthy, racially integrated and politically strong capital city. Those who knew him best also know how much Mr. Phillips contributed to this complex commitment -- and will remember him with affection, respect and appreciation.