William Bradford Reynolds says he sees himself as carrying on the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders of the 1960s.

During that decade of struggle, the assistant attorney general for civil rights said, he agreed completely with King, Roy Wilkins, the NAACP and the rest of the civil rights movement. "I was pretty much in lockstep with that whole effort," he said.

The Reagan administration, Reynolds said, is "saying the same thing that they were saying. We are basing our policies on the same policies they were advancing and promoting." But he said those policies have been "distorted and twisted" into discriminatory quotas by many of today's civil rights leaders.

Brad Reynolds is back on the job. After four years as the Justice Department's chief civil rights policy maker and a bruising Senate confirmation fight that denied him a promotion to the post of associate attorney general, Reynolds is once again pursuing his vision of racial equality and saying things that give his critics fits; things that helped make him the most visible official in the Justice Department during President Reagan's first term.

In recent months, Reynolds, 43, has increasingly portrayed himself as the champion of the rights of minorities. Although he is Yale-educated, a former corporate lawyer and member of the wealthy du Pont family, Reynolds contends it is he -- not the civil rights groups that regularly vilify him -- who best articulates the legitimate aspirations of black people.

"Too often, [my] position . . . has been mischaracterized as anti-black and anti-women," Reynolds said last week in a speech to the Wilmington Rotary Club. "Our critics take delight in misrepresenting the administration's civil rights policies as preoccupied with the problem of 'reverse discrimination,' with protecting only white males."

Instead, Reynolds explained in an interview, he sees himself following the path of the 1960s civil rights movement, while many of the current leaders have gone astray and are obsessed with numbers and quotas. In the early 1970s, he said, "The whole idea of equal opportunity got, I think, changed in the minds of some to a concept of equal results, and individual rights were translated into group entitlements."

Conservatives have rallied to Reynolds' defense with great intensity. More than 500 of them plan to toast him tomorrow evening at a dinner at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. The tributes will be led by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Attorney General Edwin Meese III, who recently gave Reynolds new, high-level responsibilities at the Justice Department.

Amy Moritz, who helped organize the tribute for the National Center for Public Policy Research, said it was a response to the "unfair" vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which rejected Reynolds' nomination in June. She called the dinner "an attempt to nullify any negative impact this would have on his reputation around town."

Reynolds, for his part, dismisses the vote as "quite clearly a political battle" waged by a small group of senators. He said he has been cheered by the "overwhelming personal support" he has received from around the country.

Reynolds' foes, however, are more annoyed than ever at hearing him invoke the King legacy. "The only civil rights leaders Brad can cite are those who can no longer rebut his ridiculous assertions," said Ralph G. Neas, director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

"I don't know how he can claim to represent the majority of blacks," said NAACP executive director Benjamin L. Hooks. "I don't know of a King disciple, those who lived and walked with Martin Luther King, who does not favor what we're trying to do in terms of aggressive affirmative action."

Other detractors are surprised to find themselves still dueling Reynolds. Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) said Meese's elevation of Reynolds showed "a lack of taste and judgment . . . I can't think of another instance in which the Senate rejected someone and he was given broader responsibilities or did not decide to return to the private sector."

Critics say Reynolds construes civil rights so narrowly that he offers minorities no practical help in overcoming the effects of discrimination -- only a theoretical view of equal opportunity that bears little resemblance to the real world.

But Reynolds consistently infuriates these critics by accusing them of fostering the kind of discrimination they are pledged to combat. He contends that traditional affirmative action programs not only discriminate against whites, but that most blacks do not want or need any special treatment.

In the Delaware speech, called "Minorities Have Civil Rights, Too," Reynolds cited a controversial new poll. It said that 77 percent of black Americans agreed that minorities should be judged on their "ability" and not given "preferential treatment," while three-quarters of black leaders disagreed.

Although some experts question the poll's methodology and validity -- such as use of phrases like "preferential treatment" -- Reynolds used the results to support his contention that black leaders are out of touch with their constituency.

Nowhere are these arguments better crystallized than in Reynolds' latest initiative: the proposed executive order on affirmative action for federal contractors.

The draft order, which would abolish minority hiring goals and timetables for contractors, sharply divided the Cabinet, and President Reagan is not expected to decide the issue for several weeks.

Reynolds argues that the 1965 executive order now in effect amounts to fixed quotas. While proponents cite studies showing that the program has greatly increased minority hiring by contractors, Reynolds says it has "slammed the door" on blacks and women by acting as a ceiling, not a floor, to minority employment.

Reynolds said that "one of the worst aspects of affirmative action is that it has introduced a stigma, if you will, into the work force.

"Anybody who comes into the work force wants to be able to stand up and look everyone else in the eye and say, 'I'm as good as you are. I can do the job as well as you can. I don't want to be labeled an affirmative action employe who somehow got here under a special set of rules. I'm not a second class citizen.' "

The only acceptable form of affirmative action, in Reynolds' view, lies in recruitment and training programs "that will indeed bring more qualified blacks into the work force, will bring more of them into the applicant pool, and then the selection process is made on a competitive basis."

Asked whether placing more blacks in a limited training program would necessarily exclude some whites on the same racial basis, Reynolds said: "You don't need to exclude anybody in order to have an affirmative recruitment program." If no black applicants are hired, he said, that may be because they are not qualified.

Civil rights leaders are not the only ones who take issue with Reynolds. Many local officials are resisting Reynolds' efforts to rewrite consent decrees in which 51 cities have promised to hire more minorities for municipal jobs.

One of the harshest critics is a Republican, Indianapolis Mayor William H. Hudnut III. "In the real world, without these kinds of commitments and priorities, people tend to be left out if they're not white males," Hudnut said.

Reynolds has also taken up the cause of education standards for minorities, saying he is determined to stop some schools from watering down their curricula so more black students can graduate.

In a recent federal appeals court brief, Reynolds argued that the state of Texas did not discriminate against minorities by requiring potential teachers to pass a skills test. A lower court had barred use of the test, which was failed by a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic candidates, on grounds that it was discriminatory.

"It is doing nobody any favors to say to minorities in our educational system that we're going to let you sit in the classroom, or we're going to run you through a lower-grade kind of an educational program, we're going to give you high grades so it makes the school look good . . . we give you a diploma . . . and you can't even meet basic requirements of reading, writing and arithmetic," he said. "It is the worst kind of discrimination to . . . give them a meaningless diploma.