When Jimmy Carter was the governor of Georgia, he managed, with a single symbolic act, to signal his determination to end the decades of official racism in his state. With Coretta King by his side, he unveiled a portrait of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in the halls of the state Capitol. The message was unmistakable.

Jimmy Carter is President now and in his first week in office he demonstrated that his propensity for the symbolic public gesture has not diminished with the years or his rise to national prominence.

The most striking of these was the President's decision on inauguration day to abandon his limousine and walk the mile and a half down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.It was Carter's way of saying that he meant it when he pledged to stay close to the people. It worked, catching the public imagination and overshadowing almost everything else that day.

There have been other such acts, although not quite as dramatic, by the new President. In the company of his old friend. In the company of his old friend. Attorney General Griffin B. Bell, Carter "opened the doors" at the Justice Department for Bell's swearing-in - an idea that originated will Bell.

"We think this is a symbolic gesture of the way we are going to operate the Justice Department," Bell said at the ceremoney to open the department's front doors on Pennsylvaia Avenue - locked since the demonstrations of the early 1970s.

With some flourish, the White House announced Carter's decision to end home-to-work limousine service for senior presidential aides. That alone would not save much money, press secretary Jody Powell conceded, but was more a "symbolic" act.

Carter himself has been traveling through Washington in a tan Lincoln Continental, a Security equipped but slightly less forbidding vehicle than the black, flag-bedecked presidential limousine.

Carter's aides are sensitive, almost defensive, when discussing these things, clearly fearing that they will be interpreted as a cynical manipulation of public opinion and sentiment. One man's symboilc public gesture is another's grandstand play.

There was "no plan" for a series of such public acts, they were not done "for their hype effect," said Barry Jagoda, Carter's television adviser.

Carter, like many other Southerners, "understands symbols" and uses them "in creative ways of demonstrating his concern," Jagoda said. "He does have a great understanding of the real content of what may be perceived as purely symbolic," he added.

It is also clear, from discussions with those who know the President best, that such things are part of the Carter style and that more can be expected in the next four years.

Charles Kirbo, the Atlanta lawyer and one of Carter's closest friends and advisers, recalled that, as governor, Carter "did the same thing with automobiles," riding in a compact car during the energy crisis and ordering the creation of a motor pool to be shared by state agencies.

In other cases, Kirbo said, Carter would "move the Capitol" temporarily out of Atlanta, setting up shop with some of his department heads in other cities. In times of crisis - natural disasters, for example - Carter liked to fly to the scene with the officials who were responsible for relief as a sign of his concern.

None of these acts had any significant impact on the quality of government in Georgia and may have appeared to be little more than blatant publicity seeking by a politician. But Kirbo said that Carter views such acts as important in building public trust and confidence in government.

"I wouldn't be surprised if he is thinking of that sort of thing" as President, he said.

The President, in fact, may have been tempted to visit the storm-ravaged Midwest and Northeast this weekend until the realities of the presidency impeded on him and his staff. At his regular briefing Friday. Powell noted that transportation is one of the major problems in the storm areas and that a visit by Carter and his full entourage of aides, Secret Service agents and reporters "would just add to the difficulties."

Powell is acutely aware of the dangers of too much symbolish and too little substance but argues, like Kirbo, that both are necessary in the business of governing.

In a striking admission, Powell cited Carter's repeated pledge to cut the size of the White House staff, and its inherent criticism of previous Presidents.

"It's not that we really think that the Ford White House was overstaffed - in my view it probably wasn't - but so the President can speak from others in government," he said. From such acts. Powell said, Carter gains "leverage" for what he seeks.#T"A great deal of people attitudes toward government relates to symbols - the closed doors, for example," Powell said. "The limousines probably symolize Privilege and distance and government expenditures better than a thousand other more important and expensive things."

But while Carter basks in praise for his public gestures, Powell acknowledges that what really matters is what follows, as symbolism gives way to decision making. Having walked the avenue and opened the doors, the President has set a standard of openness by which he will be judged in the future.

"I have no fear that it will be said a year from now that these actions were merely gestures to the public that were misleading," Powell said. "If he walks down Pennsylvania Avenue, comes in the White House and slams the door . . . we'll be subject to legitimate criticism. It is a situation that has to be watched.