When I first came to Washington, I was shocked to learn that the city once had racially segregated parks and pools, lunch counters and taxi associations, bar groups, medical associations, public schools and even, would you believe, fire department oxygen masks. The town that now denounces apartheid once had a dose of it itself.

Now, of course, things are much different. The mayor is black; so is much of the city council and most of the political establishment. Still, you would have to understand the way things once were to understand the way things now are -- why a black majority that seems both secure and, in some respects, relatively affluent continues to look over its shoulder. The past informs and pervades the present.

Edwin Meese III seems to understand none of this. In recent remarks, the attorney general has called the alliance of civil rights organizations that successfully opposed the nomination of William Bradford Reynolds to be assistant attorney general a "very pernicious lobby." Meese used this language on "Good Morning America," where he also called the rejection of Reynolds "a tragedy."

There are some things to get straight right off, and one of them is that there were good reasons to reject the Reynolds nomination. As head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, Reynolds was -- and remains -- a lackadaisical guardian of the nation's civil rights laws, except when it comes to an occasional white victim of reverse discrimination. Then the Justice Department rouses itself from its lethargy and swings into action. It lets fly with suit after suit proving that it ain't about to let no poor, economically deprived minority push around no rich, politically powerful majority.

That, though, was not all. In defending administration policy before a mostly critical Senate Judiciary Committee, the sharply efficient and supposedly brilliant Reynolds became all confused. Meetings he said he had attended he had not. People he said he talked to said he had not. Some senators concluded that Reynolds was not being totally candid. They resent that sort of thing up at the Senate, and so some Republicans (Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Charles Mathias of Maryland) joined with enough Democrats to sink the nomination. Some thought that justice was finally done at Justice.

Still, it is understandable that Meese would think otherwise. Brad Reynolds is his type of guy, and he was doing only what the administration appointed him to do. But once again, instead of appreciating the fact that reasonable people can disagree about complex issues (quotas and busing, for instance), Meese chose to disparage his opposition. As he did when he called the American Civil Liberties Union the "criminals' lobby," Meese showed again that he has little tolerance and no appreciation for opposing views. The man has the personality of the prosecutor: everyone on the other side is a bad guy.

When it comes to the civil rights movement, Meese acts as if it has neither a contemporary context nor a history. His language is that of someone who is newly arrived in this country -- who knows nothing about either slavery or the Jim Crow period that followed and instead thinks things have always been the way they now are.

It was only yesterday that racial discrimination was legal in vast parts of the country. Many of the civil rights leaders Meese condemns as pernicious grew up in such a system -- and fought it, often at risk to their lives. Pardon them if they show a certain zealousness when it comes to civil rights and a certain skepticism when told that the new challenge is white firemen who have suffered from affirmative actio programs.

The true "tragedy" of the Brad Reynolds affair is not that Reynolds himself was denied a promotion he in no way earned, but that it shows Meese to have the historical memory of wallboard. Racism remains a fact of life in this country -- it may be abating, it may be weakening, but it is certainly not ready to be mounted for the Smithsonian. Meese may not know that, but the civil rights lobby does, and it fought Brad Reynolds accordingly.