President Carter heard himself praised by a revered civil rights leader last night as "one of the finest people this country has ever had at the helm of the government."

The acclaim, coming early in the presidental election campaign was offered by Clarence M. Mitchell, former head of the Washington bureau of the NAACP.

"I learned to love you," Mitchell told Carter in front of television cameras at the 30th annual meeting of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights here.

Mitchell is chairman of the conference, which consists of nearly 150 national organizations seeking to end discriminatin against blacks, Hispanics, women, the poor, the elderly and the handicapped.

Mitchell and the late George Meany, longtime president of the ALF-CIO, were honored with the conference's third annual Hubert H. Humphrey Civil Rights Award "forselfless and devoted service in the cause of equality." Humphrey's widow, Muriel, who succeeded him in the Senate, made the presentation. Meany's successor accepted on his behalf. t

Both Mitchell and Meany won accolades from Carter in a 20-minute talk in which he cautioned that the times are "not as conducive to the enhancement of human rights as I would like to see. You can tell it in the Congress . . ."

None of the civil rights laws passed starting 1964 would have been enacted had they not been pushed by both men, the president said.

Noting that Mitchell was known as "the 101st senator," Carter said with a laugh that he wants to get two senators from the District of Columbia so that Mitchell could become the 103rd. Actually, he emphasized, Mitchell, the "symbol" of the strength of the conference, always credited others with his own accomplishments and "never grasped for recognition for himself."

The president was similarly unstinting in his praise of Meany. He "never learned how to give up and never forgot what it means to be poor," Carter said of the labor leader. And, he said no one better served "the rank and file of Americans."

Carter also expresseed his esteem for Hubert Humphrey, terming it a "tragedy for our country" that a man who would have sought "another quantum jump" in civil rights had lost his race for the presidency in 1968.

Both the president and Mitchell emphasized Carter's appointment of 29 blacks to federal trial and appeals judgeships, particularly in the South. Only a few years ago these appointments would have been "unthinkable," Mitchell told the conference.

Obviously feeling that he was among friends. Carter chided those who tell blacks to pull themselves up by their bootstraps but who don't notice that the blacks are barefoot.

At another point, he underscored the progress made by blacks since the days when they were told to move to the back of the bus. "We want to see them own the bus company," he said with a smile.

Carter, introduced by former senator Edward Brooke (R-Mass.), received standing ovations at the beginning and end of his talk. About 500 persons were in the audience.

In the afternoon, the conference was told that discrimination against blacks and other minorities "clearly remains one of the nation's most serious problems."

The assessment came from David M. Tatel, a Washington lawyer who until recently was director of the Orrice of Civil Rights in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

He urged "a civil rights agenda for the 1980s," but like Carter, warned that eliminating discrimination will be difficult, partly because of slowed economic growth, resistance to school desegregation in the North and West, and a switch in national attention from civil rights to the environment, the economy, the escalating costs of energy, and national defense.

The agenda suggested by Tatel would attack discrimination "directly" and correct defects in existing enforcement tools, he said. The agenda would: a

Provide "equal opportunities in or schools and colleges . . . because the courts, Congress and successive administrations have not fully enforced the constitutional and statutory prohibitions against discrimination in education."

Devise "new and improved tools to deal with the increasingly complex and serious problems of urban residential segregation."

Strengthen and extend civil-rights enforcement programs.

Broaden the concept of enforcement to include provision of adequate education, housing, employment, health, welfare, legal and other social services.