Sterling Tucker, 53, whose chairmanship of the City Council is now threatened by controversy over his outside employment, is a seasoned veteran of the struggle here for racial equality and political power.

Few, if any, of those now prominent in District affairs were active or widely known when Tucker came here in 1956 from Canton, Ohio, to head the local chapter of the Urban League.

And in the intervening years, he has charted his course amid the city's shifting social, economic and political crosscurrents with sufficient agility to win recognition as one of the prime competitors for Mayor Walter E. Washington's job in the 1978 elections.

It is this ability to keep his career afloat in the storms of the past decades that some astute political observers have described as Tucker's greatest single talent.

"He has a way of landing on his feet no matter what . . ." was the way the late Julius Hobson put it.

One friend attributed his survivability to an integrity, intellect and leadership ability that enable him to grasp the big picture and deal fairly with all sides.

Other observers have cited the fact that for much of Tucker's career he has remained an independent, without firm alliances to any of the city's changing power blocs.

In August, 1974, Tucker and the mayor announced mutual support in that year's Democratic party primary. After the Home Rule government took office, and the Tucker-led Council began cutting the mayor's budget, a split between the two became apparent. In the May, 1976, Democrat primary in which party leaders were chosen. Tucker was a leader of the Unity slate, which trounced the mayor's Open slate.

The current controversy over Tucker's outside employment with Howard University is not the first accusation of impropriety or wrongdoing made against him. He was pardoned by President Johnson in 1966 after he pleaded no contest seven years earlier to federal charges of failing to pay $1,661 in taxes between 1951 and 1954. At the time Tucker was executive director of the Urban League in Canton.

Last year newspaper articles called attention to a trust fund set up for Tucker's two daughters with $25,000 said to have been funneled to the Washington Urban League. Tucker denied any impropriety and asked that the fund be dissolved.

A graduate of the University of Akron. Tucker became widely known as a black spokesman after coming here at the age of 32, and was active in the 1963 March on Washington and the 1968 Poor People's Campaign.

A former No. 2 man to then president of the National Urban League Whitney Young. Tucker was named by President Nixon in 1969 to serve as vice chairman of the appointed City Council.