A California newspaper group has purchased The Greenville Delta Democrat Times, for more than three decades one of Mississippi's few newspaper voices speaking out for social change and racial moderation.

Founded in 1938 by fiery editor Hodding Carter, whose editorials on racial justice won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1945, the newspaper has been carried on by his widow, Betty Werlen Carter, and his sons, Philip and Hodding III, currently assistant secretary of state for public affairs in Washington.

Freedom Newspapers Inc., a politically conservative chain with headquarters in Santa Ana purchased the 18,000-circulation afternoon paper at a price estimated in the range of $16 million. No sale price was formally announced.

Members of the Mississippi civil rights and liberal community expressed shock and uncertainty over what the departure of the Carters from the state's journalistic scene will mean.

"The DDT has been a beacon of light in the wilderness for a long time," said Claude Ramsay, president of the Mississippi AFL-CIO. "It is tragic to see a newspaper like this taken over by a conservative group."

Ramsay added, "This just means the field of independent and moderate to liberal voices in Mississippi has been narrowed to precious few."

"It's sad to lose a dear old friend to the civil rights cause," said Aaron Henry, president of the Mississippi NAACP. "The DDT has been one of the strongest anchors of support, particularly in the white community."

Henry, who with Hodding Carter III built a biracial Democratic Party in Mississippi in the early 1970s, said he was particularly saddened "that Hodding is not coming back . . . I do hope the human relations profile of the DDT will be cintinued by the new ownership."

In Washington, Hodding Carter III said the decision to sell arose from a realization that "in the forseeable future no member of the family wanted to run the paper full time and we didn't want to have absentee management."

"It has been a very exciting and worthwhile 17 years for me, but I wanted to try something else for a while," he said, not elaborating.

Carter said the family had set a high price on the paper "and we frankly didn't think anybody would meet it. When this group did, then we sold." He would not give a figure but initimated that it was "just about" the sum reportly sought, something in the range of $16 million.

"Mississippi is a vastly different kind of place than the one we came to . . . it's changed considerably" since his father started out, he said.

"We lost an awful lot of fights but over the long haul I feel we won a war," he said. "Some others are now saying what we almost alone used to be saying."

News of the sale of the newspaper, long a training ground for aspiring young journalists straight out of college from around the country as well as Mississippi, brought memories to Pic Firmin, who was managing editor for eight years in the late '60s and early '70s.

"When I heard the DDT had been sold I went out and got drunk and cried my guts out," siad Firmin, now editor of the Biloxi-Gulfport Sun.

"The newspaper had its fame because of the old man" (the elder Carter) Firmin delcared, "but what the people nationally didn't know was that it was also a community newpaper, a newspaper that covered the community completely. It helped to effect social change through its news stories as well as throug its editorial opinions."

He said that for a time in Mississippi the DDT "was the only one really doing investigative reporting or covering the news that affected the black community."

The senior Carter died in 1972 and Hodding Carter III, who became editor in 1961, assumed the duties of publisher as well. When he left Mississippi in 1977 for the State Department younger brother Philip became editor.

The Freedom Newspapers chain, with 30 dailies in 10 states, is the 16th largest newspaper group in the United States Owned by C.H. and Harry Hoiles, it has been a Hoiles family enterprise since their uncle founded a paper in Alliance, Ohio, in 1890. The chain's daily circulation now is 740,000.

"Some people say we're right-wing," commented Harry Hoiles, whose offices at the Santa Ana Register are in the heart of Orange County, a traditional conservative stronghold. "We don't consider ourselves conservative. We're classical liberals. We try to have all our papers have the same general philosophy, which is libertarian."

On race, an improtant issue to the Hodding Carter family since they established the Delta Democrat Times in 1936, Hoiles said, "I think the government should stay out of the race issue. It should be handled individually. We try to encourage people to take control of themselves as individuals."

Though Freedon Newspapers is wholly owned by the Hoiles family some paper in the chain are managed under a partnership arrangement. Local publishers, according to Hoiles, are given a free hand, whether installed by the chain or already in place when their papers were bought.

The new Greenville publisher, Charles Fischer Jr., is vice president of the group's operations at hornell, N.Y., where it owns its only New York daily.