William J. Leidinger scans the multistoried skyline of downtown Richmond from the city manager's office, then spins in the chair he has held since 1972 and hunches forward.

"I was fired because I was white," he says.

Thus begins one side of a controversy that has stirred this former capital of the Confederacy and threatened to split it down racial lines more than anything since school busing began here in 1970.

It is a story of confrontation between a new black political force and a patrician white business establishment led by perhaps a dozen corporations that has run politics - and just about everything else in Richmond - since before the Civil War.

It represents a test that several Southern cities have already faced and more are certain to as the growing Sun Belt prosperity they offer draws increasing numbers of black job seekers who are conditioned by a decade and a half of voting drives and political activism.

Even before Leidinger was given two weeks' notice Aug. 28 by the black majority of five on the nine-member City Council, charges and countercharges were flying over why he was getting the ax.

Blacks charged he was too close to the white business establishment. Whites said he was victim of reverse discrimination. The business establishment shook its financial fist and warned that firing Leidinger would accelerate the pace of white flight from the city.

Black politicians, faced with an ultimatum they conceived as oldtime white intimidation, stiffened.

"They treated us like window washers," snaps Claudette B. McDaniel, a black council member. "I don't wash their windows."

For Leidinger, the problem ends at midnight today with official expiration of his ties to the city. But for Richmond, where mistrust and bitterness persist, it goes on.

On the face of it, Richmond is an unlikely place for this to have occurred.

Even Leidinger's critics concede he has helped maintain a downtown prosperity that would be the envy of most American cities now faced with decayed cores, increasingly red budgets and problems that never seem to end.

Since 1950, downtown development has exceeded $1 billion, according to the Central Richmond Association. In Leidinger's six years as city manager, the tax rate has dropped, there has always been a budget surplus, the bureaucracy has been restrained from sprawling and more than $250 million in public debt has been serviced well enough to maintain a double-A bond rating.

Then there are the political realities.

Race has always been a factor in Richmond politics. Despite a 1970 annexation of suburban land that increased the city's population nearly 25 percent to 249,000, the flight to suburbia, principally by whites, has eroded the population to 219,000 the past eight years.

The key factor in that unquestionably was school busing ordered by a federal court. Richmond's school system has dropped from an enrollment of 49,000 that was about 60 percent black to one of 34,000 that is 82 percent black.

City estimates show that the total number of school-aged children has fallen by nearly 25 percent in eight years, as white confidence in the city schools has eroded.

When the council fired Leidinger, the editorial page of the conservative Richmond Times-Dispatch, considered to be a voice for business, accused the council majority of "raw racism" in reverse, and called the five members a "band of black Bilbos," a reference to the late Sen. Theodore G. Bilbo, the white supremacist Mississippi senator who died in 1947.

But according to Henry L. Marsh III, the city's first black mayor and a veteran civil rights lawyer, race was never an issue.

"If Mr. Leidinger had been black and if he had been doing the same things he was doing in the same way, the question is, 'Would he have been discharged?'" says Marsh. "The answer is, 'Yes.'" he says.

What Leidinger did wrong, in the council majority's opinion, was to spend too little time dealing with the problems of the city's poor and blacks.

"His managerial style was not representative of all the interest groups," says Councilman Henry W. Richardson, a black with a large number of whites in his consituency. He was top-heavy on business."

Formal charges against Leidinger were varied. They included allegations that his reluctance to secure federal grants cost the city both its participation in a nutritional program for children and pregnant women, and nearly $1 million for a juvenile delinquency counseling project.

The ousted manager's opponents also said that urban renewal housing programs had experienced inordinate delays while Leidinger concentrated on projects in the downtown business district, and that he had concealed "meaningful information" from the council while trying to undermine the policies he disagreed with. In sum, his opponents said Leidinger just wasn't interested in "people" projects.

But the main objection to Leidinger stated in the council majority's charges against him was his "pervasive arrogance and indifference" - in other words, his personality and his style.

Even his defenders admit Leidinger's style could be domineering. "I warned him about that," says a city employe. "Bill just had to present the image of the big tough guy."

In a city where the prevailing attitude has been "what's good for Main Street is good for Richmond," businessmen are astonished that Leidinger would be accused of being too close to them.

Power in Richmond has tended to emanate from the boad rooms of a dozen or so companies, like the United Virginia Bank, Reynolds Metals, Philip Morris, Virginia Electric and Power Co., the Bank of Virginia, the First and Merchants National Bank, the Life Insurance Company of Virginia and a handful of others.

Before a 1977 plan ordered by the federal courts carved the city into nine councilmanic districts, the council was elected at large, and Main Street dominated politics with its financial backing.

Former Vice Mayor Henry Valentine recalls that when he joined the council in 1970, the majority came not only from business, but from the same wealthy West End neighborhood. And council seats were often handed down to those to whom Main Street had given its approval.

"There are plenty of people in Richmond who are doctors and well-paid professionals, but they don't have the clout that's on Main Street," says a city worker.

"I guess it's a little like the Mafia," says councilwoman McDaniel of the inner circle of executives who ultimately steer the business community.

Business seems stunned and hurt that it has lost control.

In the Bull and Bear Club atop the Fidelity Building high over Main Street, where the soft drawl of the Virginia gentlemen turns "out" into "oot" and "garden" into "gahden," talk now has turned to what it will be like now that blacks have taken over. "Hell, if we'd done this to them, they'd have us in court now," is a typical comment.

"There has always been the feeling that, let's not rock the boat," says Douglas Wilder, a Richmond Democrat who is Virginia's only black state senator. "And I wouldn't want to rock that boat either if it has been going along for me the way it has for them."

"They have never had to compromise," says McDaniel. "The black members on council are used to it because that's what life has been for us. Compromise. We've always been a token or number two. We've always had to bend. They never had to."

Richmond's political changes actually began in the late 1960s, when the city, with an increasing percentage of blacks, began to annex a 23-square-mile chunk of neighboring Chesterfield County that eventually added 47,000 whites to the 202,000 citizens it already had.

Blacks, seeing an attempt to dilute their voter strength, went to federal court and won the plan that cut the city into nine districts, four largely black, four largely white and one called the swing ward.

The swing district, with a slight majority of white, should have guaranteed a white control of the council.

But McDaniel won in the swing ward easily in 1977 and again last spring.

There is a lesson in that about the elitist traditions of main Street's political pest.

Now, as the public rhetoric of what is called "The Deed" cools, black and white leaders are trying to get together to see if they cannot find a middle ground.

"You don't put a billion dollars in an area without having a stake in it," says Marcellus Wright Jr. of the Central Richmond Association.

"I would like to think that we are all in this together, that our primary goal is to assure Richmond's vitality," says council member Richardson, whose brother-in-law, Maynard Jackson, is a mayor of Atlanta.

"I see no virtue in rehashing the issue," says Wayland W. Rennie, a white council member.

There is still much soul-searching and groping to be rone in Richmond. But underneath it, a belief that Richmond will somehow survive persists, even on Main Street, where the city's history is often cited.

"Richmond goes on," says Rennie. "In spite of the British, in spite of the Yankees, in spite of whoever."