In 1976, black voters pushed Jimmy Carter over the top in several hotly contested states. Without those states, he would have lost the election. As it was, Carter defeated Gerald Ford by less than 2 million votes, and won the electoral college by a slender 297 to 241 - a 29-vote shift would have elected Ford.

Consider this: Had the Republican Party nominated the fully qualified, respected and black Sen. Edward W. Brooke of Massachusetts as its vice presidential candidate, the Republicans would probably still be in power.

Had President Ford been able to win in Pennsylvania, its 29 electoral votes would have tipped the victory to him. Carter narrowly won the state - by 128,456 votes - which means that his 87 percent share of the state's 274,141 black votes was crucial. Just 65,000 votes in that one state would have made the difference.

But many of those 65,000 votes didn't go to the Republicans just because the Republicans didn't bother to go for them. The lesson is that blalcks counted heavily not only in the 1976 presidential race but in other contests as well.

The difference in the 1976 presidential race wasn't just black votes, but enthusiastic, choice-making black votes. Theirs was a remarkable impact, and all the more so when you realize that only 61 percent of eligible blacks in the South and 56 percent in the North were registered to vote in 1976. More than 7 million blacks are not registered to vote.

How important are 7 million votes? Only five Presidents - Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt (twice), Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon - defeated their opponents by more than 7 million.

There is a way to put those votes into action, but it won't work to throw money away on moralizing entreaties to register and vote. A white Republican or Democratic apparatus trying to design a strategy to attrack black voters also isn't the way to do it. What it takes to bring black voters to the polls is the same thing it takes to bring other voters to the polls: by dealing with their vested interests, by addressing issues head on.

Blacks vote as intelligently, and spilt as many ballots, as any other group. Blacks vote their interest; race enters campaigns only when blacks are pointedly ignored or the campaign is intentionally polarized.

If you doubt that, then ask Republican Sens. Charles Percy, Charles Mathias, Jacob Javits, Edward Brooke and Howard Baker about the significant black support they have had. And ask Illinois' Gov. James Thompson and Missouri's Christopher Bond and Michigan's William Miliken about the black votes their GOP candidacies drew.

Those candidates, as well as President Carter, won significant black support because they demonstrated that they've heard and were responsive to black demands for equity and parity in politics and in society.

Blacks are sensitive to such candidacies because blacks are behind the rest of America, and the gap must be closed. Black votes will respond to those who want to help; the unregistered will come to the polls when they see their interests represented on the ballot.

The black citizens' interests don't require shortchanging others the same way blacks have been shortchanged in the name of other's interest.

What are key black interests?

First, economic security, Jobs. That is the solution blacks want to unemployment, welfaee and despair.

Second, a coherent urban policy, one that includes adequately financed housing and community development that is perceived as a rational investment. Our cities have trainable, educable work forces that are disproportionately idle because the jobs move out of town.

Third, welfare reform. While 8 percent of all the nation's families are poor, 32 percent of black families are strapped by that disability. Blacks seek a system that provides incentive to earn and learn. It must be remembered that only 10 percent of those presently receiving public aid are able to be employed.

Fourth, business development. Blacks need business development as well as jobs. Government must be more than a passing partner.

Fifth, education. The passport to economic independence. Whites average 12.1 years of schooling, blacks only 9.4; the dropout rate among blacks is 44 percent.

Those who are most willing to meaningfully address themselves to this agenda through a political program deserve black votes. And they will get them.