TODAY'S YOUNG AMERICANS of all races may read with a certain understandable detachment about life in this country 50 years ago, when Roy Wilkins began his distinguished career with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Lynch law and Jim Crow were teamed in a cruel reign through southern and border states that slammed doors and gates in the faces of blacks. Restaurants, hotels, theaters, drinking fountains, beaches, pools and entire neighborhoods were blatantly segregated--and heaven help any Negro objector because the law certainly wouldn't. Mr. Wilkins, who died yesterday at the age of 80, had more than a routine role in all that has changed since then.

Through those dangerous days down South and on into the years of more subtle but persistent discrimination in all regions of the country, Mr. Wilkins kept up the battles for equal justice under the law. In the courts, in the legislatures, in the city halls and in the schools, this ardent and idealistic man approached each of these challenges with intelligence, unshakeable faith, grace, rage and plenty of research.

Because Roy Wilkins chose not to rail but to persuade, not to tear down but to construct, not to shoot from the hip but to marshal reason and resources, there were some in the civil rights movements of the '60s and '70s who became impatient with his style and pace. But for the most part, they still respected Mr. Wilkins for his incalculable contributions during so many of the most important moments in U.S. civil rights history--and for the fact that he guided the country's oldest civil rights organization through its greatest growth and period of prestige.

It was the successes of this pioneer, in fact, that made the issues confronting the NAACP and other newer organizations that much more complex and the views of black Americans that much more diverse. The days are past when the NAACP could set directions almost by itself. And if Mr. Wilkins could not comprehend or countenance some of the methods and directions of certain of those groups in his later years, he nevertheless spoke out for freedom and understanding: "All dedicated hands are needed and welcome in this fight," he once said, "but the NAACP would be less than human if it did not take a special pride not only in what it has done but in what it is doing today."

There is no question that this is a better country for those deeds--and for the guiding hand of Roy Wilkins.