Time, as they say, is the greatest healer, and so it is that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is wrapping a brotherly arm around Se. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).

Thurmond, the onetime Dixiecrat whose anti-civil rights filibusters in the Senate remain legend, is in fact coming to dinner tomorrow-invited by the NAACP.

The NAACP's national board of directors will be commemorating the 25-year anniversary of the Supreme Court's historic Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, decreeing an end to racial segregation in public schools.

That time heals and soothes, just as politics draws erstwhile adversaries together, may be seen at its clearest in the NAACP's invitation to Thurmond to share the table of honour tomorrow evening during its quarterly meeting here.

Thurmond was reelected last fall, with black support, and South Carolina blacks praise their onetime nemesis as a driving force behind the influx of more federal dollars to the state's minority neighborhoods.

But time has healed in other ways, more subtle, perhaps, than Thurmond's acceptance of his dinner invitation, but evident nonetheless in this heart of the Deep South.

Yesterday, for example, the Columbia State, one of the state's leading newspapers, in effect apologized for its stinging denunciations of the NAACP over the years.

"The NAACP can take pride in the role it has played," the paper wrote. "Its patient, determined leadership has paid off"-a refrain not unlike that now seen in once-virulent journals across the South.

The change is noticed. "That is a profound confession of sin," said Isaac W. Williams, the state field director for the NAACP. "Confession is the first step toward redemption-and that's as close as confession as anyone can get."

But it is not just in the newspapers that one sees this different South, different at least to a degree that makes the Brown v. Board of Education decision of a quarter-a-century ago seem ancient history.


"Oh, what are you talking about?" asked Levi Grant Byrd, a tremulous wisp of a man, 88 years old now, who organized South Carolina's NAACP branches and played a leading role in the legal maneuvering that opened white schools to blacks in this state.

"There's been plenty, plenty change. Yes, sir, I can tell you that," Byrd said laughingly.

Levi Byrd, who was there in the beginning, is right. Outside his hotel here, public school buses cruise past, carrying black and white students.

Down the street on the steps of the state capitol, a television crew is filming a commercial for the Citizens & South Bank, the second largest in the state.

The protagonists of this television ad are a white man, dressed as an executive, and a black man . . . dressed as an executive. The film aims, a director said, to show "potential customers operating in their environment,"

On beyond the capitol, they're eating lunch at Porky's. Black and white state workers, including even a mixed couple, break bread together, and there is no pain-hardly even a memory of the lunch-counter sit-ins that gripped the South long after the Supreme Court's school decision.

And so it goes on an ordinary day in Culumbia, S.C. in 1979, in a city where blacks 25 years ago would not have bothered to seek shelter in a downtown hotel, much less hold a national meeting in one.

But not only is the NAACP board holding its four-day meeting at the downtown hostelries to go elsewhere becuase the rooms didn't meet their standards.

In tribute to the change that has taken place, the NAACP has brought in nearly all of the surviving plaintiffs of a celebrated 1948 sechool desegregation suit that in many ways got things started here.

The suit, Briggs v. Elliot, was the first significant legal challenge to the "separate but equal" doctrine that kept the public schools segregated.

It became one of four companion cases that led to the 1954 ruling by the Supreme Court. Even the Brown of the case-Linda Brown Smith-is here for the festivity.

From the Briggs case are people like Joseph and Pauline Lemon, who were farmers shorn of their credit after they signed a petition saying that their children were being treated unfarily in the Clarendon County schools.

And they include James Crawford, 61, a printer whose children reaped the benefits of his efforts to end segregated education. And they include the young-kids who today share in the triumph the NAACP is celebrating, but who still are not quite certain about the suffering and trials their black parents underwent in this revolution.

"It was all worth it," Crawford said. "Many of us who got involved in the Briggs matter wondered if we were doing something crazy. . . Before that time, no blacks around here had dared to tell the white men that he was doing something wrong. But we did. We paid for it but if you ask me, it was all worth it."

Most blacks here would agree with Crawford. But they caution the visitor to remember their struggle is by no means over-just shifted to other venues, cast in other contexts.

They complain, for example, that blacks-almost a third of the state's 2.8 million population-have only 7 percent of the jobs on state government jobs.

And, they note, a number of Clarendon County's public schools remain predominantly black. But they agree, as yesterday's editorial was saying, there has been change in a positive way in South Carolina.

Few could have said that in 1954, let alone agree with The Columbia State. CAPTION: Picture, LEVI GRANT BYRD ". . . plenty, plenty change"