We didn't feel so bad when Senate Republican Whip Alan Simpson referred to those of us who had strenuously opposed the nomination of William Bradford Reynolds to an important Justice Department post as "bug-eyed zealots." After all, we had faulted Mr. Reynolds largely on precisely that ground -- his anti-civil-rights law zealotry -- and we don't consider zealotry a term that lies outside the bounds of reasonable judgment and complaint. We were zealous in our belief that Mr. Reynolds should not have the job. And if being "bug-eyed" helped our view to prevail, well, here's to bug-eyedness, whatever it is.

Attorney General Edwin Meese III's recent charge that those who opposed Mr. Reynolds constituted a "very pernicious lobby" is something else. It is not so much that he said it: if the people who have fought the civil rights fight through the years had been sensitive about such things, they'd all have folded up long ago, and they are capable of some pretty robust name-calling themselves. What is worrisome is that Mr. Meese may in fact think it. If so, he is dead wrong in his appraisal of the public groups that came forward and testified against Mr. Reynolds' confirmation, and his misapprehension is serious.

Who were these congressional witnesses against Mr. Reynolds? Principally, representatives of the same organizations that have been in the forefront of the civil rights movement for a quarter of a century. The Leadership Conference was one. This is the umbrella group composed of 175 organizations promoting the rights of racial and religious minorities, women, the aged and the disabled. Representatives of the Conference have been critical participants in the drafting of every piece of civil rights legislation since the mid-'50s. The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is another. This group of private lawyers, formed at the request of President Kennedy, has litigated civil rights cases since the days of rigid segregation in the South.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund also opposed the nomination. The Fund provided the lead attorneys in the case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and continues to develop cases, file briefs and appear in court on important civil rights questions. These groups, which have contributed so significantly to the peaceful legal change that has transformed this country, have a record of which they can be very proud. They may be controversial and from time to time wrong -- but evil? Can Mr. Meese really think they are?

The administration Mr. Meese represents has reopened a number of civil rights (and other) issues that many had thought were closed. Even though we think that much of their argument is wrong, we believe there has been a healthy and useful effect in some of this: it has compelled defenders of what was done in the past to think hard about their purposes and whether the statutes and rules they worked for are serving those purposes well. Mr. Meese & Co., in other words, have started a fair fight. They should fight fair -- and think straight.