A novel political choce confronted the black citizens of Jackson-ville, Fla - the question of self-interest, which has become a dynamic element in the national political dialogue on the future of black Americans everywhere.

The black leaders in Jackson-ville asked themselves. Should we line up with our traditional allies, the white liberals, who are trying to block an ambitious nuclear power project as a threat to the environment? Or should we make common cause with old adversaries, two mammoth corporations and Jacksonville's conservative business establishment, which are promising blacks a fair share of the project's 10,000 to 14,000 jobs?

The blacks went with the jobs. A coalition, including local chapters of the NAACP and the Urban League, intervened in a lawsuit brought by the Florida Audubon Society and successfully defended the controversial floating nuclear plants that Westinghouse and Tenneco hope to build on offshore marshland.

The corporations, in turn, have agreed to fill 23 percent of the industrial and construction jobs with blacks, who were denied those opportunities in Jacksonville's segregated past.

"We had to take a position to protect our interests," said Clanzel T. Brown, head of Jacksonville's Urban League, "or we would be wiped out with no commitments at all."

What about the environmental risks, the potential dangers?

"We have to risk a bit of the holocaust," Brown said, "if we want to participate in this society."

The Jacksonville deal, negotiated in 1973, has had ambignous results to date. The plants have not been built because of technical problems in obtaining a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

But Brown and other black leaders still think they made the right move by allying with Westing-house. "Everything they said they would do, they've lived up to," Brown said.

The trade-off in Jacksonville is a rather stark model for a new economic debate now flourishing among black leaders across America. Fifteen years ago, when Martin Luther King Jr. articulated the dream of black equality, the purpose and strategy for black political expression was clear. Today, Jim Crow is dead and the future poses more complicated questions.

Old-line black organizations like the NAACP and black politicians who grew up in the liberal tradition are being importuned to rethink their old assumptions about economic self-interest. On some issues, they are urged to abandon the historic liberal-labor coalition that successfully espoused civil rights in the era now past. In the extreme, they are asked to question whether the federal government itself is still the most reliable engine for black aspirations.

None of these ideas would be taken too seriously except that they are coming frob blacks. Many successful blacks, managers and professionals who have climbed upward to high-status jobs in the private economy are now emerging as a neo-conservative vanguard, articulate and aggressive. They espouse the corporate viewpoint, challenge old liberal dogma, preach the private sector as more crucial for the future than governmental action.

"We have just crossed into a new era," said Rep. John Conyers Jr., the Detroit congressman who holds a leftward position in the black political spectrum. "Before, we never had to argue economic theory with a black on the other end of the issue. We were always the workers, the poor, the proletarians. 'They' were always the managers, the wealthy, the bankers, the owners. Great. Very simple. 'Us' versus 'Them.' Now it ain't so simple. Because some of them is now us."

To succeed in the American main-stream - for many blacks, this is what the civil rights movement was all about, in the first place. Certainly the new voices in black political opinion are proof certain of the extra-ordinary economic progress during the last decade. The percentage of blacks in managerial ranks tripled and many of them are following a time-honored pattern of American social history - becoming more conservative politically as they become more prosperous.

As a new vanguard of opinion, their symbols are the credit card and the attache case, not the clenched fist and guerrilla bandolier that stood for the black radical vanguard that captured public attention a decade ago. As a political force, the neo-conservatives - like the radicals before them - run counter to majority opinions among black citizens. They may never become more than an articulate minority.

But they are being heard, in public forums, at congressional offices, in private strategy meetings where blacks from the corporate world are pushing a free-market line of argument, one that says private industry can deliver the jobs if only government will get out of the way.

This collides with the traditional black position on most issues - including government regulation, price controls, wage floors and job-creation programs.

Despite economic progress, nearly one-third of the 24 million black Americans remain at the bottom, unemployed or dependent on welfare or working for poverty wages. The debate begins with them - will those people gain more from expanded government or from "freeing" the private economy to pursue profits and growth?

"I had black oil riggers from Louisiana," Conyers said, "coming in here and begging me to reconsider my hositle attitude toward the oil industry. They were sent over by [Louisiana Sen.] Russell Long. That's the new politics."

Last year, Conyers was lobbied on the minmum wage by lack managers from the McDonald's hamburger chain. They urged him to abandon organized labor's position and support a special sub-minimum wage for young people - a favorite consevative solution to the massive unemployment among black teen-agers.

"McDonald's had every black manager in Detroit coming at me," Conyers said with amusement. "There were guys I went to school with begging me, 'John, you can't go along with labor on this. We can't have artificially higher wages, when we could be hiring yound black teen-agers? You're always screaming about these kids. We could give them jobs if you would just break from the labor bosses on this."

When Rockwell International, the giant aerospace company, was lobbying Congress to save the B1 bomber, it got some help from small black entrepreneurs who were eager to get lucrative sub-contracts from the project. They called on Rep. Joseph R. Addabbo (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House minority business subcommittee, arguing that the B1 could be viewed as a minority employment program. Addabbo, who is white, did not buy it. Neither did the black members of the House, with the exception of Los Angeles Democrat Augustus F. Hawkins.

Clarence Mitchell, the NAACP lobbyist for 3 years and a ranking wise man of black politics, doubts that the new voices of corporate conservatism will be able to persuade the masses of black citizens that the old coalition with labor is against their fundamental interests.

"This really reflects progress, in a wry sort of way," Mitchell said. "These corporations have hired blacks at the managerial level and they think like management. But rank and file blacks are going to see things exactly like white people. The masses of white people aren't for all that country-club rhetoric. I'm glad to see promoting management's views and, usually, management's view are not good for the underdog."

Black political attitudes are changing but readers should be warned not to infer too much from this news. The news media have been notoriously clumsy and often inaccurate in describing future trends in political attitudes, especially among black people. A decade ago, the news focused on another black vanguard - the armed militants who espoused radical, separatist, leftist ideologies. The black radicals flourished, then faded, as it became apparent that most black opinion remained in the mainstream. The rightward sermons of these new voices may prove to be no more significant, as long as to many blacks remain poor and dependent on government.

Conyers observed: "A few years ago, we would have thrown out white guys coming in with the same arguments. Now the new dilemma is we have black guys who can rap with you on business and all that and how we ought to give the corporate view-point a chance. And they always say, 'I grew up in the ghetto myself, so don't lay a ghetto rap on me.' Invariably, this phrase comes up - 'We can all get a slice of the pie.'"

Eddie Williams, president of the Joint Center for Political Studies a nonpartisan think tank for black politics, increasingly finds the new view points confronting the old in center seminars and meetings. The corporate sector, he observes, feels defensive and anxious to win new political friends.

"Corporations," Williams said, "feel they have become the new niggers in the American context. They feel people don't love them anymore . . . They feel there is a minority-liberal conspiracy to destroy them.

"We may think that's a ridiculous position, but that's how they feel.When they try to respond, we legislate against them. Perhaps, this might be the time to reach out and talk meaningfully about coalitions or some issues that are of concern to them."

The new business and professional voices have many different, and sometimes conflicting, opinions on the range of black concerns, but they are unified in their belief that economics - not the traditional civil rights issues - now dominate the future, and that the private sector will be more important to that future than the government will be.

Margaret Bush Wilson, a high-powed lawyer from St. Louis who is on the board of directors of Monsanto Corp., is also national chairman of the NAACP, which stunned its old liberal allies last winter by adopting an energy policy statement that tracked closely with the oil industry's position. Wilson sounded the progrowth theme again at the recent NAACP convention in Portland, Ore.

"New jobs come from economic growth in the private sector," she reminded the delegates. "Nine out of 10 new jobs were provided by private industry last year. Government alone cannot be viewed as providing the only answer.

"Private industry must assume a more active role. It is in our interests to ensure that the president and Congress pursue an economic policy that does not deliberately curtail growth."

Henry Lucas, a San Francisco dentist who was one of the first blacks to serve on the Republican National Committee, urges new political alliances:

"Blacks have got to get into bed with people we would never have thought of getting into bed with before."

Lucas warns that black economic gains will be particularly vulnerable if business withers or domestic energy resources dictate a future of slow growth in the U.S.-economy. "Any group of people who basically survive at the benevolence of the majority," he said, "is in big trouble when resources start drying up . . . We've got to get away from this whole emotionalism in politics. We've got to tell people, 'We'll help you today, if our interests coincide, but we will work against you tomorrow if they don't.'"

Clarke Watson, the young president of Westland Companies, a Denver coal-leasing and consulting firm, is chairman of the American Association of Blacks in Energy, which lobbies for the industry position.

Watson, a war-on-poverty veteran from the '60s, now declares himself "one of the many losers, the Sargent Shrivers, the Donny Rumsfelds. These people really increased their holdings in the American economy ' white law firms, white accounting firms, white bankers, all profited a great deal . . . Blacks did not advance their status one bit. In fact, we fell back."

Watson preaches self-reliance and self-confidence for blacks: "There's no more cotton to be picked. We're trying to combat the mentality of welfarism."

Bob Bates, who started on Capitol Hill as an aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), now stalks votes in Congress as a lobbyist for Mobil Oil. He is as smooth and forceful as Mobil's blitz of political advertising.

"I think there is a move toward industry," Bates said. "It doesn't mean reaching toward industry for a rightful share of what we should have . . .

"I believe there is something for black folks that can be gained for by hooking up with corporations - jobs and plants in our communities. Right now, we're not putting any pressure on corporations to do that . . . There's a very definite payoff for blacks if we do that, like white folks have been doing all along."

Rufus W. McKinney, Washington vice president of the Southern California Gas Co. and key draftsman of the NAACP energy statement, believes in self-reliance too. He was born poor in Arkansas, one of 13 children of a Pentecostal preacher who never earned more than $2,000 a year. That family produced two ministers, a dentist and two lawyers, including McKinney. Yet, like many black managers, McKinney quickly adds his debt to the civil rights movement, which opened up the managerial ranks for blacks. He worked 13 years as a Labor Department lawyer before the gas company hired him in 1969.

"I'm proud of who I am and I don't make any apologies for working for a company," he said, "because I thought that's what we were fighting for back in the '50s and '60s."

McKinney views the walfare state with great skepticism:

"I think it's in the best interest even of the welfare mother to have expanding economy and jobs, with less burdensome taxation and regulation. I think they have a much better chance of getting out of that condiditon that way than they do through the government welfare-state approach.

"There's an element of paternalism, of doing good that makes them [government] feel good, but that really may be crippling people. When I grew up, you were taught that you were on your own, you can't rely on anyone else."

Inevitably, the new managers and professional frequently find their sincerity questioned. Are they the new tokens - the "house niggers" of industry - who mouth white propaganda to their own people?

Edgar Twine, associate general counsel of Atlantic Richfield oil, replies: "Black people should listen to blacks who are in the energy industry. We have not sold out our blackness. We recognize that we should not be in the energy industry without the NAACP and the Urban League."

As this debate unfolds, white liberal allies, who were once "MauMaued" by black radicals, may find themselves hooted down by black conservatives.

At a recent all-day conference on energ sponsored by the Joint Center for Political Studies, McKinney and Bates drew fervent applause and laughter when they ridiculed liberal speakers who proposed "soft technology" futures, decentralized and less energy-intensive.

McKinney responded curtly to a white economist's critique of America's energy-intensive economy: "I think what he's really saying is we should go back to the good old days of sweatshops and slave labor . . . No energy, no growth, let's all go back to hand labor."

Mobil's Bates listened to ecologist Barry Commoner advocate the nationalization of the oil companies, then lightly put him down:

"It sounds to me like another case where, just as we try to get involved, some folks talk about changing the rules. I never had an expense account before. Now that I have one, the government is talking about doing away with the three-martini lunch."

The oil industry is aggressively seeking black support for its political agenda, but practical realities ultimately may stand in the way. Raising oil and gas prices may or may not contribute to economic expansion, but energy price increases definitely hurt poor people the most.

NAACP lobbyist Mitchell smiles benignly at the industry pitch and dismisses it as impossible politics "Every time black people drive up to the gas pump and look at the price," he said, "they are going to feel they were shafted."

The environmental trade-off - jobs and profits versus clean air and water - is a real enough issue, but Mitchell doubts that black workers will be "deceived" by industry claims that a cleaner environment puts people out of jobs.

Mitchell finds it particularly amusing that the oil companies, which generally have a poor record on hiring blacks, should now proclaim themselves the friend of minorities. "The petroleum industry has always been notorious in discrimination," he said, "and there's no reason to believe that raising the prices of gas and oil will mean a miraculous conversion."

Indeed, for the great majority of black citizen, the federal government, not private industry, still looks like their best friend. A national opinion survey conducted by The Washington Post found, for instance, that 91 percent of all blacks believe that government should guarantee jobs for all who want to work (63 percent of whites believe the same). But 83 percent of the black populaton want a bigger government providing more services, while a 55 percent of whites want smaller government with fewer services.

Most black political leaders would agree with Eleanor Holmes Norton, head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who is not sanguine that the mere creation of new jobs will mean that blacks get a fair share of them.

The most promising industries for future growth, such as electronics and computers, are sectors where blacks have little employment or experience. "Society puts blinders on black workers," Norton said, "and only the government can take them off. There are artificial, unnatural patterns which see whole segments of our people restricted to narrow segments of the workplace, while everyone else has everything open to him.

"There is no question that there are all kinds of industrial thrusts that are going to create jobs. And, with affirmative action, there is no reason those jobs can't be filled by as many blacks as whites."

Norton has changed the EEOC's strategy from grappling with an impossible backlog of 130,000 individual complaints to lauching industry-wide scrutiny of hiring practices. The new system will reward companies whose records comply by shielding them from countless individual complaints, but it should zero in on the major offenders, where equal opportunity is a slogan, not a reality.

Over at the Labor Department Weldon Rougeau, director of federal contract compliance, is sending another stiff message to private industry. He is pushing "debarment" of five major companies - Uniroyal, General Dynamics. St. Regis Paper, Harris Savings & Trust, and Crown-Zellerbach. If a contractor fails to perform on minority hiring, it can be cut off from future federal business or "debarred."

"I am sending a message out to the business community," Rougeau said. "Here are contractors who did not take seriously their obligations. Look at their fate."

Between the extremes of left and right, government versus private sector, many black politicians are searching for new formulations, new ideas that will marry the old goals of racial equality to the more complex problems of economic injustice. For many, this means using government power to channel resources for economic development - cooperatively with private business, white and black.

Rep. Parren J. Mitchell (D-Md.) believes that "ultimately, black Americans ought to be thinking about a black development bank," which would make low-interest loans to black and white business that promise to locate in the job-impoverished cities. "The dollar is so paramount in this country," he said, "that if we ever achieve anything resembling economic parity, the system will absorb us."

Earl Graves, publisher of Black Enterprise magazine and a leading apostle of black business, nevertheless regards this a "Band-Aid for a major illness."

"The black business community is considered part of the sideshow and not the main event," he complained. Only the federal government, offering massive incentives, will be able to erase the disastrous unemployment rates for blacks, he said.

As some blacks prosper and others remain desperately poor, black politicians are finding themselves "middled" by many issues, unable to find any easy position to put them safely in front of the so-called black interest.

William B. Fitsgerald, president of Independence Federal Savings & Loan and an emerging influence in District of Columbia politics, described how the District's black politicians were ensnared by the rent-control issue. "It was generally perceived that all black people are renters and the people are for rent control," he said, landlord is always white, and all black people are for rent control," he said. "We're finding out in this city that nothing could be further from the truth."

Rent control, by discouraging the construction of new apartments in the District, added impetus to the private market in rehabilitating single-family houses. Thus, a measure enacted to protect poor families is now blamed for driving many of them out of their old neighborhoods, pushing housing prices higher and evicting renters.

"You've got a tiger by the tail," Fitzgerald said. "How do you get out of it? You can't do radical surgery. you have to phase it out."

Fitzgerald favors tax forgiveness to encourage new apartment construction and pool of private mortgage capital, perhaps organized by the government, to help poor families buy their own homes.

"I am an advocate of ownership," he said."There is no substitute for the emotions that are involved when one looks at a home or dwelling and say, 'hey, this is mine. I own it.'"

As more black families acquire a more equal share of America's prosperity, as many become more conservative in their economic outlook, will they begin to vote their new status? In short, in the years ahead will blacks move to other suburbs and become Republicans, the way other ethnic groups have altered their voting habits as they prospered?

The question has tantalizing possibilities for American politics, especially for the future of the Republican Party, now working to undo its antiblack reputation. Off all the voting blocs making up the New Deal coalition formed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, blacks have remained the most loyal to the Democratic party. In the lastfour presidential elections, blacks gave the Democratic candidates 94, 85, 87 and 85 percent of their vote.

Bob Wright, a black city councilman in Columbus, Ga., and one of the grass-roots organizers for the Republican National Committee, predicts a steady but unspectacular improvement in the republican performance among black voters. "As we broaden our base and elect local officials who are black," he said, "you are going to (see some) change because elected officials take their constituencies with them."

This year, the GOP can point to isolated elections in the South where Republican candidates for Congress or major pulled 30 to 40 percent of the black vote. Wright said there are at least 100 black Republicans running for office this year, mostly for state legislatures. Of the 4,000 black elected officials nationwide, he believes only 150 or so are Republican, so the GOP has lots of ground to cover.

Republicans have this going for them: with the black population is quite liberal on economic issues, it is much more conservative on social issues such as pornograph, abortion, drugs and the control of crime. In The Post survey, 42 percent of the blacks labeled themselves "conservative," despite their overwhelming support for bigger government.

Ultimately, any shift in black voting patterns will depend on the same arguments and new perceptions of economic self-interest. To the extent that middle-class blacks identify with neo-conservative themes, they will find a more comfortable home in the party of Abraham Lincoln.

Black politicians of almost every persuasion would regard that as healthy - an increase in black political leverage, a sharpening of the debate over future strategies.

Conyers hardly feels threatened. "It really shakes up a lot of our old establishment Democratic friends," he said, "which is good. The Republicans are not going to be able to keep the conservative blacks. They'll be overrun by them. That will subsequently liberalize the Republican position and it will lead to a dichotomy in the national black position. It's leading to that. It's inevitable."