J. Harvey Wilkinson's article, "Black Colleges: The Right to Segregate" [oped, Jan. 1], not only misrepresented the federal government's role in the desegregation of higher education, but also does a great injustice to public black colleges, as well as to respect for the fundamental law of the land.

The Wilkinson piece was nothing more than a rationale for the exoneration of historic policies of racial segregation in Virginia. To accomplish his objective, the writer skillfully wrapped his argument in the garb of a seeming acceptance of segregation by black educators. Those black educators who have expressed concern over the methods that are being recommended for the elimination of one-race schools do so not out of love of segregation -- which they detest -- but out of their understandably tarnished faith in the integrity of white institutions and officials.

In Virginia, the policies of racial treatment, vestiges of which remain today, are unworthy of exoneration. In 1956, the state legislature enacted a package of legislation designed to further that state's "massive resistance" to implementation of the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown decision. Five anti-NAACP statutes were enacted at the 1956 Extra Session of the General Assembly. It was necessary for the NAACP to initiate proceedings in the federal courts attacking those statutes, all of which were eventually struck down as unconstitutional.

As though that were not enough, in 1959, the Fourth District Committee of the Virginia State Bar Association instituted disbarment proceedings against a distinguished NAACP lawyer, Samuel W. Tucker of Richmond. The focus of the complaint was that he had acted as counsel in three NAACP-spon-sored cases in 1949, 1950 and 1952. After losing those cases, the bar association filed a new complaint, explicitly charging attorney Tucker with being counsel in NAACP-sponsored cases and in a number of school-segregation cases. The NAACP had to beat down each of those assaults.

That history demonstrates the resistance to efforts by the federal government to eliminate vestiges of segregation from higher education in Virginia.

The tragedy of Wilkinson's article is that it is written as though the Supreme Court never handed down the Brown decision or Congress never passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act or the federal courts never ruled in the case of Adams v. Richardson.

Thus, 25 years after the Brown decision, in which the Supreme Court declared that "separate but equal" was unconstitutional, many tax-supported higher-education programs remain racially segregated as a result of deliberate attempts of state officials and state legislatures to keep them that way. The traditionally white institutions in those states that once maintained legally segregated systems of higher education are today 95 percent white, while black colleges remain 95 percent black. More important, states have maintained systems that are not only racially separate, but also unequal. By limiting opportunities for blacks to obtain professional and graduate educations, by grossly underfunding the traditionally black schools, state officials have tried to ensure that systems of higher education that historically discriminated are kept intact.

The Department of Health, Education and Welfare, after years of litigation, has approached the problem by requiring that states enhance -- not "hobble," as Wilkinson contends -- the traditionally black schools. By strengthening black schools through more funding and new programs, the state can expect that those institutions will become more attractive to both black and white students, thus making them better, more integrated institutions. That approach is a significant and welcome departure from other desegregation efforts where the burden of change rested disproportionately -- and sometimes exclusively -- on black institutions and black educators. Should this sensible approach fail, the federal courts would surely mandate a remedy that would more directly affect the black institutions -- institutions purposely underfunded and undersupported by the various states.

HEW should be commended for taking steps to end unconstitutional segregation in a way that takes into account the unique and continued importance of traditionally black colleges and recognizing that those schools can continue to preserve their identities while providing an integrated academic setting. Indeed, a new day has begun.

Wilkinson's argument that black colleges should remain black fails to comprehend the requirements of the Constitution and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for he is arguing to preserve a system that has historically and continues today to deny equal educational opportunities to black citizens.

The pervasiveness of the racism in this nation makes it necessary for the same tools as are being employed in Virginia to also be used in breaking down discrimination in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. Those tools of remedy are what are needed to facilitate the admission of more minority students into the medical and law schools of the nation. And they constitute the basis for affirmative-action programs that are under such severe attack today. Thus, the Wilkinson article was less a brief in support of a single black college than part of a sophisticated attack upon remedial tools that have been hewn out of the suffering and sweat of black Americans and their committed fellow citizens.

We of the NAACP urge HEW's Office of Civil Rights to continue its efforts to carry out its mandate in a sensitive and sensible manner.