Two weeks before the recent inquest began into the death of black South African leader Steve Biko, lawyer Sydney Kentridge - hired by the Biko family - flew to Washington to consult with lawyers and medical experts on the strategy he would pursue in his inquest arguments.

Kentridge went over details of Biko's autopsy report with a neuropathologist and examined the fine points of the law with Washington attorneys Peter J. Connell, of the law firm Debevoise and Liberman, and Tyrone Brown, who was recently appointed to the Federal Communications Commission.

Biko, a South African nationalist leader, died on Sept. 12 while he was in the custody of the government's security police. Although the South African government intially indicated Biko's death may have resulted from a hunger strike, an autopsy showed that he died of head injuries.

The elaborate legal representation provided the Biko family - which combined the resources of attorneys in the United States and South Africa - was coordinated and financed, in part, by a little known Washington-based organization called the South African Project.

The Biko case is one of a string of civil rights-related cases in South Africa that have received financial and technical support from the legal assistance group since its inception in 1967.

The South African Project is a program of the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, created by President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in 1963 to provide the leadership and resources necessary to take the civil rights movement out to the nation's streets and into its courtrooms.

Apartheid laws in South Africa have caused the lawyers' committee to extend its resources on an international scale, an effort for which the committee has been criticized.

"We've been under attack to a certain degree because there are those who believe the lawyers' committee ought to be concerned with civil rights only in this country," said Millard Arnold, 31, who is director of the South Africa Project.

"The definition people tend to give to civil rights is a narrow one that has come up as a result of our own experiences in this country," said Arnold. "The truth of the matter is that civil rights is really an end product of human rights and it transcends all borders."

Arnold, the project's only full-time attorney, who works with an administrative assistant and a legal intern, is responsible for fund-raising and for maintaining an overview of South African civil rights cases in which the project's assistance might be needed.

The lawyers who are members of the lawyers' committee and lend their talent and influence to the work of the South Africa Project are among the nation's most eminent attorneys.

Arnold said the list of between 150 and 200 lawyers includes 13 former presidents of the American Bar Association and five former attorneys general, including former Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, former Secretary of Transportation William T. Coleman Jr., former Howard University Law School Dean Charles T. Duncan, and former Watergate Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski.

In addition, Arnold said his group maintains a network of lawyers in South Africa who conduct legal research and keep the project appraised of curial changes in South Africa's laws.

The project's assistance to South African lawyers and their clients has taken the form of financial support - through foundation grants and private donations - to pay for legal fees, legal research, preparation of expert withnesses, and legal observers who have been sent to South Africa to observe major trials.

Arnold, who was an attorney with the Wall Street law firm of Shearman and Sterling until he became director of the project in July, graduated from Howard University in international relations in 1971. He attended the Notre Dame UNiversity Law School, where he graduated in 1974.

"We try to do things in the project," Arnold said. "We are concerned with the rule of law and with human rights. The case we become involved in some way have to do with the denial of fundamental rights and an erosion of the rule of law."

The South Africa Project was formed in 1967 when Joel Carlson, a South African Lawyer, came to the United States in search of support for a controversial case in which 37 citizens of Nambia had been jailed for alleged criminal acts against the government of South Africa.

The 37 were charged under the Terrorism Act, passed in 1967 and made retroactive to cover violations the Namibians faced the death penalty.

Carlson found a sympathetic ear among members of the lawyers' committee, then embroiled the civil rights cases throughout the U.S.

The committee agreed to help Carlson get the financial backing and legal assistance he needed to challenge the death provision of the Terrorism Act. Although most of his none was put to death.

"As a result of that effort, we established the South Africa Project and we've been involved since then with the goal of helping the people of Southern Africa to achieve civil rights under the law Arnold said.

Arnold, who said he has twice been refused a visa to visit South Africa, said his organization is under increasing "subtle pressures" from the South Africa government to cease its activities in that country.

Recently, Arnold said the group received a letter that apparently was sent by the attorney general of South Africa requesting detailed information about the project's membership and how it is supported financially.

"There are many complaints coming out of South Africa about such things as how the Biko family was able to meet the enormous costs of their attorneys at the inquest," Arnold said, "the fact that the family could obtain competent legal representation is what bothers the South Africa government," he said.