As 400 white, anti-busing demonstrators cheered and a tiny group of blacks chanted "We Shall Overcome" on the courthouse steps, a tight-lipped federal judge dropped contempt charges against a state judge who has become a local folk hero for defying his desegregation order.

"We're a community and ought to be pulling together," declared U.S. District Court Judge Nauman Scott, 64, as he offered the olive branch to the state judge who has been standing at the schoolhouse door in the tradition of Alabama's George Wallace.

State Judge Richard Earl Lee, a burly good ole boy, duck hunter and decendant of Robert E. Lee himself, has been escorting three white girls to all-white Buckeye High School on and off for the last two weeks. He promised to step aside and honor the federal school integration plan Scott drew up for the 26,000 students of Rapides Parish.

"The law says busing is a viable tool to use for integration," said Scott, whose busing plan has made him perhaps the most unpopular man in the history of this rural area.

"I'm bound by the public injunction issued yesterday," said Judge Lee, who has been immoratalized on the radio by a ballad in his honor. He risks jail and a $1,000-a-day fine if he again tries to keep the three white girls -- heralded hereabout as "the Buckeye Three" -- in Buckeye High School.

Come the end of the semester, the girls must begin attending the Jones Street High School, which is 54 percent black, or risk losing half a year's credits they have earned this year at Buckeye, said Judge Scott.Lee had made the girls wards of his court in an attempt to keep them enrolled at Buckeye, enlisting state police and a local constable to carry out his order in defiance of the federal judge's plan.

What was billed as a classic federal-state showdown at high noon today in a sleepy Louisiana town of 50,000 actually began more than a century ago when the South lost the Civil War and Congress passed the 14th Amendment. The 1965 Civil Rights Act struck down a century of segregation on the books, but the South, Louisiana and especially this parish in the rural heartland, clung hard to the old way.

The Buckeye case is just the latest saga in the history of Rapides Parish, which was slow, even belligerent about integrating its schools, says Louis Barry, 64, a prominent black lawyer here who filed the original suit against the school board in 1967 demanding an integration plan.

Now, more than a decade later, the plan is still being worked out by the federal court, fueling local tempers. Several months back, a cross was burned on the vacant lot across from the shantytown office of Louis Barry, one of the few blacks (who make up one-third of the community) who has spoken out against Judge Lee.

He has called Lee's custody maneuver, to allow the "Buckeye Three" to attend a high school outside their school zone, a sham. And he disputes many white parents who claim they support integration but oppose busing their children miles away to a public school. Says Barry: "It's not the bus, it's [still] us."

Even as late as 1979, the Justice Dpartment found the local desegregation plan unacceptable. And Judge Scott, in redrawing the school zone lines, had to reach out into the rolling hills of pines and live oaks to find enough white students to integrate the city schools. In one fell swoop, he moved the Buckeye Three -- Michelle Laborde, Lynda McNeal, both 13, and Ramona Carbo, 12 -- from their neighborhood junior high and ordered them, along with 106 seventh and eighth graders from Buckeye, to the Jones Street School. Only 22 of the students actually enrolled at the predominately black school. The remainder -- including the son of the Buckeye principal -- attend one of two "segregation academies" that have blossomed since the desegregation order.

The desegregation order included the closing of some previously all-white schools. All manner of private "freedom schools" sprang up. When Forest Hills High School was shut down, some 700 parents protested, flying the flag at half staff, parading though the town while a buglar played Taps, and setting out to start their own church schools. One set of parents actually took over Forest Hills, finding a spare set of keys and setting up a "squatters' school" until Scott gave them the choice between getting out or going to jail.

When Judge Scott issued his desegregation order Aug. 6, Ina Laborde, a union organizer and proud Buckeye parent, promptly enrolled her daughter, Michelle, a brown-haired eighth grader, in a private church school. Michelle was distraught. Just elected head junior high cheerleader at Buckeye High and suddenly faced with the horror of watching her pompon-waving dreams go down the drain, she cringed at the thought of losing out on her accrued popularity. Last year she was elected class president, tying for Class Favorite with her best friend, Lynda McNeal, star of the girl's junior high basketball team.

The labordes transferred legal custody to friends within the Buckeye school district and Michelle skipped back to Buckeye High. Lynda McNeal, a pretty blond who fretted at the thought of separation from her best friend, also was sent to live away from home with Michelle. Ramona Carbo, who moved here from Atlanta, couldn't bear to give up life on the pep squad -- and off she went to live with friends within the Buckeye district.

Then a Buckeye parent whose child had been dispatched miles away to Jones Street complained to Judge Scott that it wasn't fair for some children to stay behind. Scott agreed, declaring the custody transfer a "sham" aimed at skirting his desegregation order.

Enter Judge Lee. He not only approved the transfer, but made the girls wards of his court in what appeared to be an attempt to protect their parents and guardians from federal court fines soon threatened by Scott. He maintained Scott had no jurisdiction in custody matters, that it was a state court function.

Scott ordered the girls out of Buckeye, a sprawling brick complex of brightly painted buildings housing 600 students in grades six through 12, and into racially mixed Jones Street -- in the heart of Alexandria's black section.

Lee ordered them back to Buckeye. Scott ordered them out. Lee ordered them back. Scott ordered them out. Lawyers prodded Lee into becoming the "great white hope," symbolizing all manner of blue-collar frustrations over busing and other encroachments by the federal government and urging him to stand up to Scott. "The Ballad of Judge Lee," a catchy country-western tune, began blaring from the radio: "Judge Lee, he has set the people free," the chorus goes. Bumper stickers sprounted up: "Lee's hot, Scott's not," and "Thank God for Judge Lee."

In the predawn darkness last week, Lee escorted the girls back to Buckeye. Scott ordered them out again, filing contempt citations against the parents, guardians, school officials and Lee. He threatedned everyone with fines from $500 to $1,000 a day if the girls returned to Buckeye.

On Monday and Tuesday, Lee defied Scott again and personally enrolled the three girls in Buckeye High. On Wednesday, Scott issued the injuntion against his nemesis. Thursday was to be the showdown -- but it turned instead into the day of the Great Red Clay Compromise, with Lawyers for all sides working out a deal in the judge's chambers. Outside, protesters shouted each other down and waved their signs: "Lee's for me," and "Intergration Stinks."

But in the hall on a break, Judge Lee said that he had not defied Scott to thwart his desegregation order, but to maintain local court sovereignty over the custody issue.

"I detest racism," said Lee just before contempt charges were dismissed. "Some of my closest friends are black. I love 'em like brothers. But that's not the issue. Custody was the issue, and the right of one judge [Scott] to call another [Lee] a fraud.

"The law should be colorblind, and every person should be afforded equal opportunity and equal rights in a free society. If these three kids had been three little black girls who wanted to go to Buckeye [High], I would have fought for their rights, too."