Sometimes a person just stumbles into a setting that makes him feel really good about America. I did that when I walked into a luncheon at which I was to address members of the South Carolina Bar Association about terrorism, budget deficits, immigration and other concerns of the nation's capital.

A white lawyer from the state capital, Columbia, tells me apropos of nothing that I am to be "the first black to address this group in all its 101 years." I try not to appear impressed, but I am, for reasons far beyond his remark.

I see the chief justice and other members of the South Carolina Supreme Court and their wives. Judges of the family courts. And members of the General Assembly, an institution that once worked overtime passing laws designed to preserve rigid racial segregation. I see an audience perhaps 80 percent white and 20 percent black of people who are the backbone of the power structure in South Carolina. And I see at the head table 43-year-old I. S. Leevy Johnson, a Columbia lawyer who was one of the first three black people elected to the General Assembly in this state since the turn of the century and is the first black president ever of the South Carolina Bar.

"How remarkable!" I whisper to myself. I am remembering that January day in 1951 when I went to Charleston to visit J. Waties Waring, former captain of the Charleston Light Dragoons, scion of eight generations of Charleston aristocracy, son of a Confederate veteran -- but by then hated and ostracized by white South Carolinians because federal Judge Waring had ruled that blacks must be allowed to vote in the state's previously all-white primary.

Twenty-one thousand persons had signed a petition calling for Waring's impeachment. The State House of Representatives had voted $10,000 to finance impeachment proceedings, also voting funds to buy Waring and his wife one- way tickets out of the state.

"What a contrast between 1951 and 1986," I thought as I waited to give my speech. "Judge Waring (who had further infuriated whites by allowing me to enter his front door and eat dinner with him and his wife, Elizabeth, at their home at 61 Meeting Street) would be so proud of these changes flowing out of his courage."

Then I thought of another contrast. That between what these people in South Carolina were doing and what Attorney General Edwin Meese and William Bradford Reynolds were trying to do in Washington.

In South Carolina the people who man the ramparts of justice are working to put far behind them a past in which racism and assorted bigotries put at each other's throats Americans who should have been working together to produce better lives for all in the state. In Washington, 35 years after my visit to the Warings, Meese and Reynolds are tossing around clich,es of bigotry ("reverse discrimination," "quotas," "unfairness to white males") by way of trying to undo all the progress provoked by courageous men such as Judge Waring.

Meese, Reynolds and others are lashing out at "activist judges" who, like Waring, believe that the Constitution is not dry parchment, but a living document that speaks to judges today in a voice not known in times of slavery.

After my speech to the South Carolina Bar Association, I talked to a lot of lawyers and judges, including the chief justice. I wish Meese -- and President Reagan -- would listen to them. The president and the nation's chief lawyer would find that these people are proud of their march away from Jim Crow. They don't want any clocks turned back. They don't want to revisit the old meannesses and hatreds that were so prevalent in January 1951.

South Carolina isn't brimming over with racial, social and political justice. But it is light-years away from 1951, mostly because that state and the nation have had some wise leaders during the last 35 years.

One white lawyer said to me: "We can't let Meese lead us back into the old darkness."

No, we cannot.