IT SEEMS INCREDIBLE that only 25 years ago public officials-including plenty of "respectable" Washington figures-could still have been walking around defending laws that forbade black children to attend public schools with white children. And it seems no less incredible that the process of putting this ruling into effect took so many years-an entire school generation. Or consider this: It has not even been 25 years, but only 15, since it was forbidden in parts of this country for blacks and whites to eat in the same restaurants or to stay in the same hotels or to use the same drinking fountains and waiting rooms. Fifteen years ago this spring and summer the argument raged in this capital over the civil-rights legislation that would change these things.

All this not just in a lifetime, but well within the adult lifetime of millions of contemporary Americans, black and white. That more remains to be done to redeem the promise of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling of 1954 and the 1964 civil-rights law is indisputable-but that is not the central scandal of the story. The central scandal is that until so very recently Americans were somehow able to countenance these cruel conditions-some to defend them, some merely to ignore them, but a vast majority to accept them complaisantly. You can judge how much the national consciousness has been raised by trying to imagine people today talking and behaving in the manner of pre-Brown America.

We should not congratulate ourselves too lavishly on the change. Both conscience and law should have made it impossible for the conditions that existed in 1954 (and well after) to persist into the mid-20th century. A bloody struggle-one that cost lives-was required to put the new rules into effect. And no one can look around today and claim that the damage done by so many years of official and consensual maltreatment of the American black minority has been undone or made up for. But even so, there is much to be gained by reflecting on the genuinely revolutionary character of the change that has occurred since Brown.

That the pre-Brown circumstances prevailed for so long should invite a great skepticism concerning our assumptions of what is right at any given moment, including now. That the hardened and generally accepted segregationist practices gave way in so relatively brief time should hearten those who doubt that the social-political system is susceptible to pressure and change at all. Both conclusions are important to keep in mind as we wind and battle our way through the very difficult conditions the past quarter century has created.

It is possible to ask of these laws and court rulings something more than they were meant to provide-and more than they should provide: one on one, absolute, unvaried and spiritless equiality ordered up by government. And it is possible to turn and walk away from the unfinished business of Brown, arguing that it is too hard or that enough has been done. We should use the real message of Brown to jolt us out of these lazy assumptions. That is the way to commemorate the decision of 25 years ago.