The South, the nation's top labor leader was saying, is just waiting to be organized. The year was 1898, and the speaker was Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor.

Now, 79 years later, the South is still waiting.

Despite sporadic organizing drives and spurts of rousing rhetoric about unionizing Dixie, the South remains the least-organized region of the country, with less than 14 per cent of its work force - about half the national average - belonging to unions.

In its leading industry, textiles, fewer than one worker in 10 is organized, despite wages that are the lowest for any major industrial category in the country.

In its second-most industrialized state, North Carolina, only one of every 15 737-farm workers belongs to a union, the lowest ration for any state in the country.

Eleven of the 20 states with right-to-work laws banning union-shop contracts are in the South: all 11 states of the old Confederacy.

Moreover, unions' share of the work force is shrinking in the South as it is in the rest of the country. In eight of the 11 states of the Old Confederacy, unions lost ground between 1964 and 1974 in terms of the percentage of each state's work force that is organized, according to the latest available figures from the Bureau of Labor Staistics.

A visit to this small, easy-going Bible Belt community just off I-95 south of the Virginia border - with its huge windowless brick textile mills flanking the town on all sides - points up both the problems and potential for organized labor in the South.

For 14 years, Roanoke Rapids and its 16,000 residents have played host to one of the nation's most intractable labor disputes: a seeming war-to-the-end between the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) and J. P. Stevens & Co. over a contract for 3,100 workers at Stevens' seven plants in the town.

The union narrowly won an election at the seven plants in 1974, allowing it to represent the workers, but has failed to win a contract from the company. So adamantly has the company resisted that the AFL-CIO has branded it as labor's No. 1 target for the nation and the key to organizing the south.

Unions, backed by civil rights and religious groups, have called for a nationwide consumer boycott of Stevens products and are reportedly prepared to spend $10 million or more to see that it succeeds. Protests are popping up at department stores everywhere, but Stevens has shown no signs of caving in.

Roanoke Rapids, with its modest but tidy "mill village" cottages, backyard vegetable gardens and typical smalltown lifestyle, doesn't look like the scene of the major labor confrontation of the 1970s.

In dingy storefront headquarters at opposite ends of town, ACTWU and the anti-union J. P. Stevens Employees Education Committee are dug in for a long seige. But, in between, life goes on pretty much as ususal.

Local merchants and other townsfolk who are not directly involved in the dispute will tell you that the union is supported mainly by blacks, led by "outsiders" and plagued by defections - all of which is denied by Clyde Bush, a soft-spoken Tennessean who is one of ACTWU's resident representatives.

Bush, in turn, charges that the Education Committee is "98 per cent white," much smaller in size than it claims and a tool of the company - which is just as vigorously denied by the committee's president, Gene Patterson, a 29-year-old loomfixer who works the night shift at the mills.

Partisans on both sides tend to state their case in absolutes, with a fervor not shared by most people.

"A union's the only way you can get justice with a company like J. P. Stevens," said Lundee Cannon, who's supported the union since it came to Roanoke Rapids in 1963. "People are just dying every day of the cotton dust. It's a real hard thing to explain to someone who don't work there."

"The company hasn't treated us bad, J. P. Stevens is a good employer," said Patterson's wife. Paula, who's worked at the mills for eight years as a weaver. "The union is using us, it's walking on us as a stepping stone to the South. If the boycott's successful, it's us who won't have any jobs, any money to pay the rent and the grocery bills."

The town is generally against the union but not all up in arms about it, according to both sides. The pressures tend to be subtle.

Lucy Taylor, a former Stevens worker who contracted lung disease from the contracted lung disease from the cotton dust and is now head of the Carolina Brown Lung Association, recalls trying to borrow chairs from local churches for a meeting and being turned down by the ministers because "they thought the union was behind it."

On the other hand, the atmosphere is generally civil. Bush recalls how the local police, after bobtailing the parade route for a union march through the town in 1975, congratulated the union for a well-run parade and gave it the route of its choice the following year.

This is a far cry from the old days when North Carolina troopers mounted a machine gun on the roof of the largest cotton mill at Kannapolis, N.C., and trained it on the town during a 1921 strike - or when Georgia Gov. Eugene Talmadge, who was considered a friend of unions until he clashed with them over pay rates for state work projects, had state troopers pen strikers and their families behind barbed wire fences during the textile workers' general strike in 1934.

But it isn't a "new South" just waiting to snap on a union label, as some claim. Race is still an issue, although less of one. Suspicion of "outsiders" lingers. So does a paternalistic climate dating back to the company-owned mill towns, reinforced by the reality that the only alternative to $3.50 an hour at the mills may be no wages at all on the farm.

Perceptions of the degree of change vary.

"There's less of a feeling now of 'we' versus 'they' in the South," said Jacob Sheinkman, secretary-treasurer of ACTWU. "This is not to say we've run out of opposition," added Sheinkman, but "there's more of a commonality of problems."

Rep. Richardson Preyer (D.N.C.), a thoughtful lawmaker who generally runs with union backing, sees more continuity than change.

"Things haven't changed all that much in North Carolina," said Preyer recently. "It [labor's weakness] arises naturally out of the rural background of most of our workers. They are an independent people who don't view themselves as labor union types. They think that's for the big cities. They believe in making it on their own . . . Southerners have a great love of the land, a sense of place, roots. People resent an outsider coming in and telling them there's something wrong has yet to show in union membership with their place."

The climate for unions is steadily improving in the South, although it rolls, according to Ray Marshall, a University to Texas professor specializing in Southern labor economics before he became U.S. Secretary of Labor either this year.

Industrialization, civil rights laws and other forces tending to lessen the differences between North and South have eroded Southern institutions that historically impeded union organizing, including racial segregation and paternalistic labor-management relations, Marshall said in a recent interview.

"What would really make a difference is if the unions would pull together and organize," he added.

While some other Southern observers suggest Marshall may underestimate the resiliency of anti-union feeling in the South, among workers as well as employers, there is general agreement that Gompers' successors have yet to test their case in a forceful, sustained fashion south of the Potomac.

Now, the union leaders say, they are ready to make the test. Their vehicle is the Stevens boycott, which, in its planned scope, eclipses the recently successful boycott against apparel made by the Texas-based Farrah Manufacturing Co.

But Stevens, the nation's second largest textile firm (behind Burlington), is a bigger and more powerful target than Farrah and more difficult to boycott because its products sell under a host of different lables.

Results thus far are indecisive: sales up, profits down, according to J.P. Stevens' most recent financial statement.

Almost lost in the Stevens furor are less spectacular but potentially more solid gains being made in Southern branch plants of unionized Northern-based firms, epitomized by the pledge won by the United Auto Workers from General Motors and several other big firms not to fight union organizing efforts.

In its first contract agreement under the new pact, 600 GM workers at a headlamp plant in Monroe, La., got immediate wage increases averaging $2 an hour, an increase of nearly 50 per cent.

The only real labor gains in North Carolina in recent years have come in such plants, said Preyer. "That may be where the change comes," he added.

"This may be be the key to labor's future in the South, not the big splashy boycotts," said another Southerner, a labor sympathizer who question the strategy of targeting on Stevens. "Choose the line of least resistance and fan out from there."

Ironically, that was what the textile union appeared to be doing in 1963 when it took on J.P. Stevens, an old New England firm that had joined the textile exodus to the South in quest of minimal wages, taxes and union pressure.The company plants and did not appear conspicuously hostile.

But it subsequently fought the Southern orgainizing drive with such intensity that it has been cited 15 times by the National Labor Relations Board for unfair labor practices and forced to pay $1.3 million in back pay to aggrieved workers - earning the premier position in the AFL-CIO's chamber of corporate horrors.

Now, after nearly three years of futile bargaining at Roanoke Rapids, the union has filed charges with the NLRB accusing the company of failing to negotiate in good faith. The NLRB has gone to court seeking an injunction to force the company to bargain seriously. Decisions are pending.

According to union negotiators, both sides have compromised on wages, with the union now proposing an 11 per cent increases and the company offering increases of 7 per cent to 9.4 per cent. The principal disagreements are over the union's demand for arbitration of grievances, a payroll checkoff for union dues, seniority restrictions and controls over workloads, said ACTWU representative Bush.

There is no strike, no picket line. Union and management negotiators meet periodically for talks. The company representatives "just sit and talk all day," said Bush. Stevens officials decline comment on the talks.

The anti-union Education Committee, which claims 1,200 adherents (the union claims more than 2,000), is pushing for another election to decertify ACTWU as the bargaining agent, but can't get one as long as the unfair labor practice charges are pending - an impasse that could last as long as the boycott. And that could be quite as long time.