The first Black College Day kicked off yesterday from the Ellipse and down Pennsylvania Avenue to the U.S. Capitol with all the half-time splendor of marching bands and campus queens. But beneath the appearance of festivity was a sense of commitment around a single issue -- preserving black colleges and universities.

In fact, some veteran civil rights leaders hope the effort to preserve black colleges and universities will revitalize the broader civil rights movement in the manner of the activism of the 1960s.

"This is the army," said D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy as he looked from the steps of the Capitol at the thousands of black youths gathered on the Capitol's lawn for an afternoon of speeches from black congressmen, D.C. officials, clergy, student leaders and others. "The elders now provide the wisdom, but these young people are our strength. We spent the seventies trying to develop brain trusts of experts and professionals and the young people said we didn't include them. It was a mistake not to. The success of the movement now depends on them."

U.S. Capitol police estimated the number of students who gathered on the Capitol grounds at more than 8,000, while D.C. police said that as many as 20,000 may have taken part in the march and rally. They came from all over the country to wave banners reading "Save Our Schools" and to sing songs of earlier struggles, including "We Shall Overcome," the anthem of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

While the methods recalled an earlier time, the message of yesterday's demonstration reflected what students said was the threat to traditionally black educational institutions in the 1980s. Ironically, it is "intergration" of black colleges with large numbers of whites, and the merger of black state colleges into the statewide university systems that many of these students protested. They were also concerned that the federal government has begun to earmark less federal money for black colleges at a time when many of the colleges need the money to survive.

"The government is trying to get rid of black schools and I felt that I had to come out and support this march," said Sandra Parker, 19, a business administration student from Clark College in Atlanta. "I think people can see that we mean business. Everyone here is of voting age. If the politicians want our vote, then they are going to have to do some of the things that we need done."

Parker said she didn't pay $15 of her own money to ride one of 23 school chartered buses 12 hours one way to Washington just to experience the marching bands and campus queen competition. Her eyebrows furled as she spoke and the bands kept up the dance stepping tempo during the march.

"We've talked about this at our school, and they tried to instill in us the importance of coming there today," she said. "A lot is at stake. What we do here today can have an impact on whether other generations of blacks can go to predominantly black colleges."

Television journalist Tony Brown, host of "Tony Brown's Journal" and the organizer of Black College Day, said that without black colleges and universities, the nation would lose more than 50 percent of its black college graduates.

"In America today, the primary means to move up is the bachelors degree," Brown said. "It means in 1980, the bachelor's degree is what the high school diploma was 30 years ago. About 30 percent of all black students go to black colleges and universities, yet they graduate more than 50 percent [of the country's black college graduates]. Seven out of 10 blacks who go to predominant white colleges don't graduate."