The sight was almost farcical. There, holding aloft a "Whites Have Rights" placard, beside one of the world's only statues of Millard Fillmore, was a single neo-Nazi, a man so disturbed that last winter he tried to kill himself by drinking antifreeze.

Surrounding the neo-Nazi was a ring of more than 100 reporters, jammed together, at least a dozen deep. Eleven television camera crews, including one from the Netherlands, recorded his every utterance. Fifteen still cameras clicked at his every move.

Surrounding the reporters was a ring of blue uniformed Buffalo and Erie County police. Some rode horses, others held vicious-looking German shepherd dogs.

Surrounding the police and spilling onto Niagara Square across from the art deco Buffalo City Hall were about 500 anti-Nazis, assorted leftists and curiosity seekers. the Revolutionary Socialist League, the Progressive Labor Party, the International Committee Against Racism, the Workers World Party, the Marxist-Leninist Party and the Young Socialist Alliance were all there, peddling their newspapers and philosophies.

The ostensible reason was that Karl Hand Jr., who has drifted among various Ku Klux Klan and Nazi groups for the last decade, had called on "100 white men with guts" to join him in a white-power rally on the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

This set off an orgy of overreaction. Local television stations treated the event like the coming of World War III. "The Stage Is Set in Buffalo, but for What. . . .?" blared a headline across the front page of The Buffalo Courier-Express this morning. The police commissioner called out 350 law enforcement officers.

"I've never seen anything like this," one businessman said as a camera crew brushed past him. "The press gave an awful lot of credibility to a couple of nuts," Mayor James D. Griffin complained.

It all could be dismissed lightly if it were not for a series of tragedies that have raised racial tensions in this tough blue-collar city on Lake Erie. tSince September, seven black men in Buffalo and one in nearby Rochester have been killed in brutal attacks police say were racially motivated.

Within 36 hours last September, four blacks, including a 14-year-old boy sitting in a supermarket parking lot, were shot point blank in the head by a man dubbed "the .22-caliber killer." In October, two black taxicab drivers were bludgeoned to death and their hearts were cut out.

More recently, five blacks have been stabbed, two fatally, by a white man described as in his late 20s or early 30s with a medium build and blond hair. The attacks have been incredibly brazen.

One example: on New Year's Eve, Albert Menefee, 32, went into a drugstore near downtown to buy a pack of cigarettes just after 4 p.m. As he left, a white man in a green three-quarter-length jacket, who moments before had been chatting peacefully with a black woman at a bus stop, walked up to him and plunged a knife into his chest, puncturing his lung and chest.

Menefee survived, thanks to some skillful open-heart surgery. But the attacks on him and the other blacks heightened an air of fear and suspicion in the city, so much so that many black men now routinely carry revolvers and knives. Not a single suspect has been arrested.

"This is a very serious matter. It is nothing to joke about," Juan Cruz, a 24-year-old college student, said today. "To me, the investigation is going very slowly. If there had been white people killed, something would have been done by now. How many lives have to be lost before they arrest a suspect?"

It was into this environment that Hand stepped last month, announcing his rally. He says he is the western New Yorker coordinator for the National Socialist Party of America, the same group that was involved in a melee in Greensboro, N.C., last year that resulted in five deaths. The party says it believes whites should form a separate nation out of the states of North Carolina and South Carolina and secede from the union.

Hand admits he wanted to attract attention. He certainly did. The Black Forum, a group of traditional black leaders, promptly began plans for a noon rally to observe King's birthday. A more militant group, the Martin Luther King Day Memorial Rally Coalition, announced that it would hold a demonstration opposite the Nazis.

Mayor Griffin, fearing a violent confrontation between Nazis and anti-Nazis, threatened to arrest anyone who showed up for the coalition rally. aMeanwhile, civic, religious and political leaders pledged support for the Black Forum demonstration.

The only recognizable Nazi to show up today was Hand. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), three area congressmen, dozens of major religious and civic leaders and several thousand demonstrators showed up for the Black Forum rally. They cheered calls for racial brotherhood and sang "We Shall Overcome."

There were no arrests during the day. The only potentially dangerous incident occurred when a TV cameraman accidentally broke a window above a sidewalk where several early-morning demonstrators were standing.

Buffalo had proven itself, said the Rev. Will Brown Jr., chairman of the Black Forum. "It was a devastating rejection of Nazism."

But Hand wasn't disappointed. "We accomplished a good deal. We got our message across," he said. "I feel this is a first step."