When I was a youngster growing up in segregated Atlanta, there were separate sections on the bus for blacks; separate drinking fountains, separate schools.

The law was a tool for instituting, regulating and maintaining a system of racial inequality. It was openly and avowedly based on the theory of white supremacy. And it was in flagrant violation of the United States Constitution.

The structure of white supremacy was dismantled, brick by brick, through the same process by which it was built--the law. A social revolution relegated racist laws to the garbage can of history. It found its truest expression in a legal revolution of judicial decisions, executive orders and congressional actions that removed race as a factor in the exercise of constiutional rights.

Even as a young boy growing up in the Jim Crow South, I saw the law as a double-edged sword. I saw how it was used against black people. But I also recognized its potential for redressing black grievances. I knew that in our democracy the tools of oppression could be transformed into the instruments of freedom.

I wanted to be part of that process. And as I walked to my overcrowded, double-sessioned, ill- equipped high school, where I used a geometry book in 1952 that had been used by a white student in 1935, I dreamed of becoming a lawyer and arguing freedom's case.

But pure, youthful idealism wasn't the only reason. I had a role model, a man by the name of A. T. Walden. Few people today are familiar with Mr. Walden--he is one of the multitude of black heroes who are relegated to the footnotes of our history but deserve full chapters.

Mr. Walden was a power in Atlanta. He was a successful lawyer, civic leader and political activist who was one of the few lawyers in the South to persistently bring civil rights cases to Jim Crow courts.

It wasn't just his legal and civic accomplishments that drew me to this man. It was his style. He radiated authority. He stood straight and tall. He spoke magnificently.

My feelings for the law and for lawyers were also strengthened by contact with the elite of Atlanta's white legal community. It was a very indirect contact.

From 1948 through 1960, my mother catered dinners at the Lawyer's Club of Atlanta. I served at those dinners--a tall, skinny kid gawking at the cream of Atlanta's power structure. I admired their bearing, the way they dressed, the way they articulated the issues, if not the substance of their positions.

After the last plate was cleared, I was supposed to be in the kitchen, washing dishes. Instead, I would sneak into the stacks to listen to the after- dinner speeches. I got drunk on those speeches, hearing those lawyers and judges orate.

So I wanted to become a lawyer. It was a crazy idea. The bar was segregated. There was no way a black person could study with whites for the bar review, no way he could get into a Georgia law school, no way he could hope to be a member of the Lawyer's Club.

But in an insane environment, the person who has ideas and ambitions that run counter to that environment only demonstrates proof of his sanity.

Like A. T. Walden, and like many southern blacks of my generation, I left my home state to get my law degree. I returned to work in a small black Atlanta firm for $35 a week, and after some detours I am now back at the law full-time.

Practicing civil rights law in the South of the 1960s was an extraordinary experience--exciting, challenging, frustrating and humbling all at once. It was a time of great movement, when the process of chipping away, piece by piece, at the structure of segregation accelerated. And it offered a first-hand view of the indignities imposed on black people by racist laws.

One of the lawyers I worked with was a young man named Horace T. Ward. In 1950 he applied to the University of Georgia Law School, but was denied admission on the ground that he was not qualified by reason of attitude and character, which was Jim Crow shorthand for denial by reason of race.

Horace filed suit, and it took 6 1/2 years for the case to come to trial. Judge Hooper, chief judge of the U.S. District Court, found for the university on a technicality.

I recently looked up that decision. It's a beautiful example of how some southern judges swept the real issues of race under the rug. Even so, I suppose it was an indication of how far we had come. Instead of saying with Justice Taney that blacks had no rights a white man was bound to respect, Judge Hooper and others like him had to resort to legal double talk about "administrative remedies."

Horace eventually got his law degree from Northwestern University and returned to take the Georgia Bar Exam. Some years later the state attorney general told me that Horace made one of the highest scores on that test. When I asked him how he knew that, since all candidates get numbers, he said: "We keep track of you-all."

When Horace Ward returned to Judge Hooper's courtroom, it was not as a plaintiff but as a counsel, a member of the Georgia Bar, an officer of the court, seeking admission to the federal district court. Judge Hooper, a gracious man, said: "Mr. Ward, it's been a long journey."

Horace Ward's long journey culminated in 1979 with his appointment as judge of the federal district court in Atlanta, presiding over the same courtroom where Judge Hooper once upheld the university's refusal to admit him.

The story of Horace T. Ward is in many ways symbolic of the change in the South, the change in the United States, and the change in the structure and functioning of our legal system.

But one, two, or two dozen Horace T. Wards do not indicate that the long journey of black people toward equality has ended. Rather, it has just begun. The fact remains that the legal profession remains a fortress closed to most black aspirants to legal careers.

The barriers are no longer laws that discriminate, university policies of white supremacy or law firms with "no-black" hiring rules.

Today the barriers are inferior educational systems, economic disadvantages, obsessive reliance on so-called "objective" tests and admission criteria that operate against black law school applicants, and covert discriminatory hiring practices. We have an obligation to ourselves, our profession and to a democratic system based on the rule of law to eliminate the continued unequal access to the bar.

We must question whether, by silently accepting restricted black participation in our profession, we are not accomplices in a system of subtle discrimination every bit as devious and ignoble as the system of overt segregation.

It takes no great effort of imagination to determine the causes of black inequality. Economic deprivation severely limits the aspirations of black youth. Inadequate education does its part. But even if we allow for those factors, the primary cause of limited black access lies in structural barriers that operate to screen blacks out, rather than bring them into, the legal profession.

The Law School Aptitude Test is one of those barriers. I do not propose to evaluate here the various charges that have been made against the test's ability to predict law school performance.

Rather, I want to suggest that law schools have relied too heavily on test results, screening out black candidates whose personal attributes, grade averages, and strong commitment to a career in the law suggest that they should be admitted.

Too much has been made of the fact that black applicants average 100 points less than whites on the test. Not enough is made of the fact that blacks admitted under the program of the Council on Legal Education Opportunity have performed impressively, lower LSAT scores notwithstanding.

And too little is made of the fact that--at every grade point average category--white applicants are more likely to be admitted to law school than blacks with the same grades.

As a result, the black law student population is only 4.5 percent of the total. But even that dismal figure tells only a small part of the story. The black share of law students has actually declined since 1976.

Higher minority enrollments do not mean higher black enrollments. In 1971 blacks were about two-thirds of all minority law students; by 1981, they were barely half. Since 1971 the black share of law students barely moved--from 4 percent to 41/2 percent. But the Hispanic share doubled and the female share quadrupled.

After graduation, blacks are far less likely to go into private practice and far more likely than whites to work for the government or in public interest law. Less than three out of every hundred lawyers in the biggest and most prestigious firms are black. Few blacks are on law school faculties or on the bench.

Under the Reagan administration, the federal bench has been closed to blacks. Of 89 appointments to federal judgeships, only one is black. Whatever else we might say about President Carter, over 14 percent of his judicial appointments were black. And the Carter appointees won substantially the same ratings from the ABA as Reagan's.

The pattern of exclusion begins at the entrance gates to legal education and persists through employment practices and judicial appointments.

Law is said to be the second oldest profession. Since the dawn of time, lawyers have told the rest of us what to do and how to do it. Now it is time for us to get our own house in order.

The problem is clear. Black citizens have been denied equal access to entry into the legal profession and equal access to all aspects of the profession.

The answer is also clear: affirmative recruitment and admissions policies and hiring policies consciously designed to remedy past and present exclusion.

The legal profession is the one profession in America that is inseparable from the system itself. Racial exclusion in the practice of law amounts to racial exclusion from the system of law.