FOR THE PEOPLE of Washington to win any thing resembling the democratic freedoms of local self-government in the 1970s, there had to be a special corps of exceptional local achievers and thinkers who took it upon themselves to underwrite the best of everything in the city--"proof" in an unfair congressional test that the District of Columbia was indeed ready and able to exercise basic rights enjoyed anywhere else in America. And in those ranks always was R. Grayson McGuire Jr., who died Tuesday at the age of 71.

Ask anyone in the forefront of the home-rule movement in its roughest years about Grayson McGuire and you hear about a man who put his heart, money and wise counsel where it counted, when it counted in the civil rights and self-government struggles. And though his efforts brought him high praise and countless awards, Mr. McGuire was more content behind the scenes, contributing generously but without fanfare, more interested in interracial and local harmony than in publicity.

Coming as he did from generations of native Washingtonians, Mr. McGuire knew early on the burdens of minorities--as a black in a segregated town, as a Catholic and as a Republican. As he once noted, "there was nothing to do but pound, in concert with others, on the walls of the maze in which we found ourselves and to scatter pebbles rather than bread crumbs along the way in a determined effort to not only better conditions for ourselves, but to point the way to our successors."

As president of the McGuire Funeral Service, Inc., as president of the Washington Urban League and as an organizer in 1968 of the post-riot coalition formed to help the local government put the city back together racially and physically, he never wavered in his belief that brotherhood was essential to the strength and success of this city.

"Now, although we are not completely the captains of our own destiny," he said, "we are at least learning how to use the vote to better our condition. We are finding that ethnic discrimination, from whatever direction it comes, only weakens the fiber of any community. We are learning that religious prejudice is one of the most divisive of all forces wherever it occurs. And that, in the District of Columbia, we had better learn that we should not let political labels be the determining factor when we all need to pull together for the common good."

With warmth, grace and wisdom, Mr. McGuire helped assure that these lessons were not lost during critical times in his community's history.