The 10-year-old boy steps outside and empties a tub of water into the dirt yard, scattering the chickens. That done, his evening bath is complete.

Myron Joyner, a lean youngster with soft curly hair, lives with his 31-year-old mother Mary in northern Worcester County on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Their house is a two-room shack made of composition board, cinder blocks and tin.

Inside, the light flickers from a naked bulb in the ceiling. The floors are worn gray wood shrunken to form deep grooves between the boards; the wallpaper, a sooty, faded floral. There is no running water. The bathroom is a portable toilet outdoors.

"It's not fit for human beings around here," said Mary Joyner, a small woman with snapping eyes who works in a chicken factory. "But if they closed these houses down, we really would have no place to go, no place to rent. Not poor black people anyway."

Joyner pays $25 a week to live in Hammond's Camp, the informal name for a collection of a dozen shoe box houses without indoor plumbing. Her home is only nine miles from the towering condominiums and expensive vacation motels at Ocean City.

For blacks in Worcester County, housing is a major problem. A recent study showed that a quarter of all black households in the unincorporated areas of this largely rural county do not have indoor toilets or running water, compared to about 1 percent of the white households.

Civil rights lawyers say the housing conditions are part of a greater racial inequality -- an inequality that exists not only in Worcester County, but also in the other eight counties that make up the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay.

As a result, lawyers and other activists have launched a possibly momentous legal campaign. In the past year, a dozen suits charging various kinds of discrimination have been filed against Eastern Shore counties and towns.

The problems the suits address -- in housing, employment and representation -- are readily apparent in Worcester County.

The county, although almost one-third black, has only one black elected official. Black residents such as Mary Joyner can't afford better housing because they traditionally have held the lowest-paying jobs on the county's farms and in its poultry industry. The county has no code on housing standards, and county officials have never applied for the federal funds that would allow them to build low-income public housing.

So far, five suits have been filed in Worcester County. The Ocean City police department has been sued four times for job discrimination, while the county seat of Snow Hill has been sued on the grounds that at-large voting districts prevent the election of blacks.

Although only one of the dozen Eastern Shore suits has been settled, activists say it is clear the area is ripe for change. The civil rights movement, which brought only minimum progress to the area in the 1960s, may finally be coming in force.

"We are marching now, not on city hall, but into federal district court," said Carl Snowden, 32, a civil rights consultant from Annapolis.

Worcester (pronounced Wooster) County is perhaps the best known of the Eastern Shore counties because of Ocean City, which attracts as many as 200,000 out-of-towners on a summer day. But it is also among the least known because the vacationers rarely stray from Rte. 50 and the seaside strip into the countryside of cornfields, chicken houses and privies.

The county, with a year-round population of almost 31,000, has only four small incorporated towns but hundreds of small villages and communities. It is bordered by Delaware on the north and Virginia on the south and is the only Maryland county to front on the Atlantic Ocean. The land is flat, lushly green and about 35 feet above sea level.

Residents are employed mainly in the agriculture and poultry industries. Three-quarters of them live in places of less than 2,500 people, and 80 percent have lived at the same address for at least five years.

More than 21 percent of the black population lives at or below the poverty level. The median household income for whites is $15,267; for blacks, $10,828.

Critics argue, however, that statistics can't show all of the characteristics of the county -- long known for its independence, its conservatism and its largely unchanged nature.

"There is a sort of complacency there," said Alan Legum, an Annapolis attorney who has assisted with several of the suits. "The attitude is, 'Everybody's happy. Everybody's happy.' It's the same situation you found in the South in the last century -- the slaves are happy and well-treated by their masters. Nobody's complaining. They're hanging on to what little they have and not making waves." 'I'm Used to It'

For the past 36 years, Gertrude Milbourne, a field worker, has lived on Rte. 12 near Girdletree, a farming community in the southern portion of the county. Her neat frame house, shared with her son Mitchell, 34, and daughter Victoria, 32, has four rooms and a tin roof. In the back yard, an old-fashioned pump provides cool, clear water; a wooden privy is tucked away near a wooded area. The rent is $35 a week.

A plump woman who is missing several front teeth and has a sweet nature, Milbourne is 55 and has never lived in a house that has running water or an indoor toilet. She has never asked her landlord, a woman she calls "Miss Nettie," to install them.

"I'm used to it," she said. "I never even thought about asking. Miss Nettie's been real good to me."

But wouldn't she like to live in a more modern house? Something close to alarm crosses Milbourne's face.

"No, indeed," she said emphatically. "I like living here. I get a ride with a friend. If I lived way back somewhere I couldn't do that, and I don't drive."

At Hammond's Camp, where the Joyners live, there is none of Milbourne's satisfaction. Some county residents, even a county official, say that Clarence Hammond's houses are among the worst in the county. He has rented them to black families for 40 years.

Hammond's white frame general store sits at the crossroads of Rte. 610 and 113, in sight of his rental houses. Outside, the sun has a baking, soak-to-the-bones quality. Inside is cool and dim.

Hammond, a resident of Ocean City, stands before a cluttered backdrop of work gloves, rat poison, razors, bubble bath and beer. He replies matter-of-factly to questions about his tenants.

"They're free to go anytime," he said. "Nobody's keeping them here."

But what if they can't afford anything else?

"If you work," said Hammond, "you can afford most anything in this country."

Hammond, a fit man in a short-sleeved shirt, work pants and a cap, moves rapidly back and forth behind the counter, unloading boxes, stirring a pot of hot dogs. "I guess they don't have anything to write about now," he said to a familiar customer. "The hostages are home."

But his eyes, light blue and direct, crackle at the next question. Some of his tenants say that he doesn't think poor blacks deserve better housing. Is that true?

"You go and ask any of them to do something for me and they'll do it," he said. "So I leave it up to you, lady."

Then, in a running monologue, he says he is going to sell the houses, the store, everything, in February and then he'll no longer have to contend with questions about his property.

"I'm going to stop going in and hauling trash out of there," he said. "I had a man put a couple of toilets in there two months ago and he's already having to move them out and bring more in, they're so nasty."

A man named Chester, a friend of Hammond, walks in the door; Hammond turns and fishes in a cooler for Chester's brand of beer.

One last question: Does Hammond plan to make any improvements to his houses before he sells them?

"I don't know what I'm going to do, lady," he said. "I take it day by day." A Land Apart

The countryside is hazy in the summer heat. Stately farmhouses sit at a distance from the road, surrounded by acres of corn and soybeans. Two small boys run through a plowed field. A two-lane country road abruptly ends in the lapping waters of Chincoteague Bay.

Occasionally, the raw stench from chicken houses drifts by; this is, after all, the nation's second leading poultry-processing county (ranking only behind the adjoining county of Sussex, Del.)

Worcester County was settled in 1672. But until the completion of the Bay Bridge in 1952, the Eastern Shore was virtually separated from the mainstream of Maryland's economic and political life -- a factor that gave the area its regional quality.

Slavery was a fundamental part of the Eastern Shore from early Colonial times until the enactment of the 13th Amendment in 1865. Some local history books say that Worcester County would have joined the South in secession had the state not been held in line by political and military forces.

In the 1940s, John Smack, the Berlin Town Council member who is the county's only black elected official, looked forward to Colored Excursion Days. That was the name given to the three days shortly after Labor Day when blacks were able to walk the boardwalk and ride the Ferris wheel in Ocean City.

The civil rights legislation of the 1960s did away with such overt segregation in public places. But as recently as the late 1970s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People won what it considered a major victory when the town of Berlin was persuaded to pave the streets in the black quadrant of town. The NAACP also persuaded the U.S. Postal Service to deliver mail directly to front doors in the black section, as was done in the rest of the town, rather than forcing black residents to erect mailboxes at the end of their drives.

At the request of the NAACP, in September 1983 a Howard University group did a study of conditions of blacks and whites. The conditions remain largely unchanged two years later, black leaders say.

The study, entitled "A Dream Deferred," reported that blacks are far more likely to reside on unpaved roads than are whites. It said that the county employed almost no blacks in nonmenial positions and none in positions of authority. It called housing conditions deplorable and urged the approval of a housing code. And it said that the county's 10 volunteer fire companies, which receive county, state and federal assistance, have had no black members since the 1950s.

Nevertheless, there is not unanimous agreement that Worcester County has a racial problem.

"I don't think there's discrimination in Worcester County, no," said County Commission Chairman Carlton Massey, who owns a Pocomoke City Ford dealership. "Why, my assistant parts manager is a black boy I hired out of high school and my assistant body shop manager is a black boy I hired out of high school. One came with me when I went into the business in 1958, and he's like a member of the family."

The recent housing study, conducted by a Salisbury State College professor for a federal advisory group called the Worcester County-Ocean City Housing Resources Board, was brought before the five commissioners last spring. It stressed the need for a county housing code. Furthermore, it estimated that up to 1,681 Worcester County households, or a potential 5,443 persons, could be displaced as the result of a minimum code; the residents, most of them black, would have nowhere to go.

Rather than accept the report, the Worcester County commissioners decided to form their own 10-member black-white task force to study the housing problem. "I don't think I should comment about that until we get their report," Massey said. Pressure for Change

Outside activists and black leaders in Worcester County have definite, but sometimes differing, ideas about solutions.

Saunders Marshall, the black, 60-year-old chairman of the local Housing Resources Board, disagrees with such things as lawsuits. "I look at lawsuits the way I would look at a prison in my back yard," he said. "I agree with them doing it in other places, but not here. I'd rather work it out. If people have good relations, rather than build up racial tension, why not negotiate first?"

But a housing code must be adopted immediately, said Marshall, a retired vocational teacher who is a former president of the county chapter of the NAACP.

"If they pass the housing code, at least there would be a goal to reach a certain standard," he said.

Snowden and Legum, the Annapolis-based activists, say that lawsuits will change the political and racial landscape of the Eastern Shore in a way that studies and programs will not.

Of the dozen suits, the only one settled so far is a voting rights case against Dorchester County brought by the U.S. Justice Department in December. The settlement calls for the establishment of voting districts that should ease the way for the election of black county officials.

Representation, Snowden believes, is the area's only hope. His strategy involves voter registration campaigns and more suits to eliminate at-large voting districts.

"My calculations are that we can win black seats in eight to nine cities on the Eastern Shore," he said, "and we've got a good opportunity to elect blacks in six counties. There's no question there'll be a redistribution of power almost overnight and that'll bring about great institutional changes."

But for now, John Smack is the only black elected official in Worcester County.

Smack, a 51-year-old bus driver, and his wife Leola, a teacher, live in a well-tended house on a pleasant street in Berlin (population 2,200). There are striped awnings on the windows and a lamp post at the end of the drive.

In the side yard is a gazebo filled with hanging flower baskets and a tinkling wind chime.

"We've worked hard," said Smack, accepting a compliment about his home. He is a large friendly man in a red-and-yellow Hawaiian shirt.

Smack comes from a typical background for blacks in Worcester County. His father spent his life working for a white family who had businesses in Ocean City. His mother cooked in a restaurant for 40 years.

"There's not much opportunity to work here anyway," he said. "So many smart young people have to leave to find work. But there's less opportunity for blacks. In the banks overall, there are no blacks. In the post office, there aren't many blacks, and you're talking federal when you're talking about the post office. I'm a little upset with the county, too. If you want to find a black, the best place to look is in the cafeteria and the maintenance department."

Why is that?

He searched for words. "It's a sort of life, a way of life. We've just all done things this way so long."

Smack has a scrapbook filled with clippings from his two terms on the Town Council.

"I'm well accepted on the council," he said. "I don't feel any fear whatsoever. I don't feel like the other members hold anything back, under the table. "Sunday at the Camp

It's Sunday morning at Hammond's Camp, the collection of shoe box houses where Mary and Myron Joyner make their home.

A middle-aged man ducks his head under the hood of an old brown Plymouth, wiping his hand on his pants leg. Chickens with dusty feathers peck around the doorsteps. A beige dog lies halfway inside a barrel. The day is going to be hot.

In the Joyner house, 10-year-old Myron is frying sausage; his mother is washing dishes in a tub on the plastic dinette table.

The Joyners have lived in Hammond's Camp for a year, moving 15 miles from Delaware with the breakup of Mary Joyner's marriage. Joyner has a 10th grade education. Describing her work at the chicken factory, she said, "I pull chicken guts." She usually works overtime on Saturdays.

"One thing I don't do is miss my rent," she said. "I'll let something else go before I do that."

A dozen plastic milk jugs, used to carry drinking water from a store two miles away, rest against an old refrigerator; the red-tinged water from the camp's outdoor spigot is too "rusty" for anything but cleaning and bathing. To Joyner's right is a frayed plaid couch that doubles as Myron's bed. On the wall above are four blue ribbons he won for the 50-yard dash and other races on Field Day at his elementary school last year.

"This place is all right with him," said his mother. "As long as there's kids around, he's going to rip up and down the road."

Myron wolfs down a sausage biscuit and trots out the screen door, a cap cocked coolly over one ear, moving for maximum audience appeal.

A visitor remarks that he is a good-looking youngster.

"Yeah, people tell him that," said his mother, dipping a sudsy glass into the tub. "He likes to hear it, too. I try to make him mad. I'll say, 'Don't you know any better, boy? They just didn't want to tell you you was ugly.' "

Sometimes, she said, she'd like to escape the chicken guts and the demands of a growing boy who can't decide if he wants to be a rock star or an Army commando.

"Sometimes," she said, "I wish I had a bathtub. I'd come home and I'd get in it and I'd stay in it."