A generation ago, race as an issue in southern politics was black and white.

Those on one side prayed in public, and turned the other cheek when hit. Their demands were simple -- a cup of coffee at a lunch counter, a seat on the bus, a better school for their children, the right to vote.

Those on the other side stood in schoolhouse doors, brandished electric cattle prods and turned firehoses on women. Some bombed Sunday schools and murdered women and children. Their vocabulary seemed limited to three words: "nigger," "no" and "never."

A political verdict was rendered in Washington when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texas Democrat, signed both into law.

Two decades later, as southerners still struggle to implement that verdict, the issue is so intricately woven into the political fabric that it often appears gray.

"Everything in politics is racial," said University of South Carolina writer Jack Bass, a specialist in southern politics, "but almost nothing is racist . . . . The color line is important, but it's complex."

"The things that are important to the black community are not seen as important to the white community," said Tennessee Democratic Chairman Richard Lodge of Nashville. "It's not race, it's issues; but you really can't separate the two."

The predicament is most apparent in the Democratic Party:

*Racial differences often hinder the Democrats from putting together a potentially winning coalition of rural populists, long part of the party's base, and blacks, now perhaps the most significant part of the party's new base.

*Moderate southern Democrats, most of whom are white, urge the party to move to the center; more liberal Democrats, many of them blacks who make up nearly one-third of the party's voters, demand that it at least stay where it is.

*Three years ago, Democratic leaders looked to one of their fastest growing elements, newly registered and recently activated blacks, as the party's potential salvation. Now many Democratic leaders fret that giving blacks too much attention will scare off critical swing voters, nearly all of whom are white.

*Here in the Mississippi Delta, traditionally a bastion of Democratic strength, a recent surge of crossover voting has given the congressional seat to a Republican, who is white. The loser both times was a Democrat, who is black.

The Democratic Party's dilemma is "whether it will remain the party of white and black Mississippians, necessary for its survival, or will it try to out-Reagan the Republicans?" said Hinds County Supervisor Bennie G. Thompson, a black from tiny Bolton who is Mississippi's Democratic National Committeeman.

Yet some southern whites, here and elsewhere, contend that the party is in a bind. "Blacks understandably are restless in the Democratic Party because they look at their level of loyalty and say, 'Damn, if anybody deserves anything, we do.' And in normal political terms, that's true," said Donald L. Fowler, a Democratic National Committee member from Columbia, S.C.

"But the other side of it is that if we gave them everything they wanted, it'd be a black party," Fowler said. Even the most "progressive" white Democrats don't want that.

If the Democratic Party is in danger of becoming the "black" party in the South, the GOP could just as easily become the "white" one -- just 40 years after some two in five black Americans identified themselves as members of the party of Lincoln.

Today, more than 70 percent of southern blacks see the Republican Party as indifferent to their concerns, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll taken earlier this year. President Reagan's popularity has enhanced the GOP among southern whites, but half of all blacks polled said they consider Reagan "a racist."

Those perceptions help prevent enough blacks from joining GOP coalitions to sharply limit the growth of Republicanism in state and local offices. "We will never [win] a statewide office until we get the black vote, until a substantial number of black Alabamians will vote a Republican ticket," lamented Alabama state Sen. Larry D. Dixon (R) of Montgomery. Alabama is one of just three southern states yet to elect a Republican governor.

Even some Republicans who have either courted black voters -- or at least avoided outright racial appeals -- seem more concerned with mollifying liberal whites than attracting large numbers of blacks.

"My strategy has always been to do enough in the black community so nobody could accuse us of 'racing' things up," or appealing for votes on the basis of race, said Brad Hayes of Charlotte, a media adviser to North Carolina Gov. James G. Martin (R), who captured 12 percent of the black vote en route to his 1984 victory. "If you race things up, you spook the white middles, and you get the editorial writers on your case."

It is not suprising that race is a constant factor in Dixie's politics. The 11 states of the Old Confederacy are home to one-fourth of the nation's whites but nearly half its blacks. In most non-South states, moreover, black communities are often few and far between. Here, they are found virtually throughout the states.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 emancipated southern blacks politically, sent millions rushing into Johnson's Democratic Party and ultimately helped replace hundreds of white public officials with black ones.

In 1960, Democrat John F. Kennedy received 68 percent of the black vote. Four years later, Johnson received 94 percent, and the percentage of blacks voting Democratic has stayed between 85 and 88 percent ever since. In 1960, only 53 percent of all blacks considered themselves Democrats. Four years later, the figure jumped to more than 80 percent. It remains there today.

Other changes were more gradual, but equally profound. In 1964, only 3 percent of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention were black. In 1984, that figure was nearly 18 percent -- including 46 percent of those from South Carolina and between 36 and 42 percent each from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia.

In short, while the South as a whole has become more Republican over the past two decades, southern blacks have become more Democratic. Today they are a cornerstone in the Democratic Party of the Deep South that only a generation ago stood rigidly against civil rights.

Many state Democratic organizations have become battlegrounds for essentially racial struggles.

In Alabama, for instance, detractors complain that the state party is controlled by four "special interests," usually ticked off as "the plaintiff trial lawyers, organized labor, the Alabama Education Association and Joe Reed."

Reed, of Montgomery, is associate executive secretary of the association and chairman of the Alabama Democratic Conference, the party's black caucus. He boasts of personally drawing state legislative district lines to all but guarantee black victories, and actively working to make "white politicians respect the black vote."

Critics call that "interest-group politics." Reed does not.

"If they're arguing that Joe Reed has tried to maximize black participation in black areas, I'm guilty," Reed said. "If they're saying Joe Reed has carved out all those districts for black people -- yes, sir."

Other state Democratic parties have accommodated similar efforts to enhance black political participation, and many whites have protested with their feet. "It wasn't so much that they began to identify with any issues," Fred Slabach, executive director of the Mississippi party, said of his organization. "It was that they began to share power with blacks, and that's what drove some of the old fire-eaters out."

Perhaps nowhere are such tensions as stark as here in Mississippi's 2nd Congressional District, which stretches from the outskirts of Jackson almost to the Tennessee border and where 58 percent of the population is black.

In 1982 and again in 1984, veteran black state legislator Robert G. Clark Jr. of Lexington won the Democratic nomination, only to lose both times to Webb Franklin, a Greenwood Democrat-turned-Republican. Each time, most blacks voted Democrat while most whites voted Republican.

Clarksdale businessman Pete Johnson, a white who lost to Clark in the 1982 primary and campaigned for him in 1984, blames the outcome on "racism, pure, simple racism." He is running again this year -- partly, he said, because some blacks have told him that "a black man can't win it."

Johnson said he has heard other things, one white man to another. "I can't tell you how many farmers have told me, 'I'm never gonna vote for a Republican [again], but I'm never gonna vote for a nigger,' " he recalled, apologizing for repeating the derogatory term used in conversations with him.

State party director Slabach argues that "only when economics becomes the overriding issue can you put together the redneck-blackneck coalition." If he and Johnson are right, the hard economic times endured by many blacks and whites in the Delta could unite them behind Johnson or Doddsville lawyer Hiram Eastland, the other white candidate in the June 3 primary.

Economics alone, however, will not assuage black voters. While not always arguing in explicitly racial terms, many of them think the third candidate in the race, black lawyer Mike Espy, should be the nominee.

"I think the white community should vote for me, the Democrats should vote for me out of party loyalty," said Espy of Yazoo City. "This is a Democratic district. It always has been -- except in the congressional race -- and you know it's because of race."

Some blacks talk of a possible independent candidacy if Espy is denied the nomination -- a candidacy that could split the Democratic vote and return Franklin to office.

No one has clean hands in this dispute, however. Blacks and whites accuse some Democrats of being too eager to blame Clark's losses on racism instead of his own campaign's shortcomings.

In contrast to Mississippi's second district, Virginians last year elected Democrat L. Douglas Wilder, a Richmond state senator, as lieutenant governor -- the first black elected to statewide constitutional office in the South since Reconstruction.

"By way of some miracle, we have managed to put race behind us," said Church of God in Christ Bishop Levi E. Willis of Norfolk, a black who engineered the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's impressive showing in Virginia's 1984 presidential preference caucuses.

Ironically, it was Jackson's campaign for the nomination that many whites complain brought simmering racial differences to the surface throughout the South.

That candidacy drew thousands of new blacks into the political process. At the same time, however, it spawned a reaction among conservative whites that the Republicans exploited. The net result in the November general election was a white outpouring of votes that nullified newly active blacks voting Democratic.

Moreover, observers say, some of Jackson's foreign policy initiatives -- especially his visits to Cuba and Nicaragua -- hurt the Democratic Party among southerners, who traditionally have been strongly anticommunist.

Today, black and white politicians covet Jackson's ability to inspire black voters. But they are divided over whether a Jackson campaign in 1988 would help the Democratic Party or whether it would sharpen racial differences.

Alabama Lt. Gov. Bill Baxley (D), now a candidate for governor, said he would welcome another Jackson presidential bid. "There's very little about what I know about Jesse's foreign policy that I agree with," Baxley said. "But I agree with almost everything, all of his beliefs, on domestic issues." Black congressional candidate Espy, who would desperately need white votes to win if nominated, said he would invite Jackson to campaign for him. "In Mississippi, this kind of candidacy cannot afford not to ask a Jesse Jackson to come in. He's made some very positive contributions," Espy said.

What Jesse Jackson may be to some white Democrats in the South, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) is to blacks -- a reminder of why one political party won't get their votes.

Opposition to civil rights and voting rights reforms, as symbolized by the 1964 presidential campaign of Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), captured growing southern discontent with the Democrats and helped launch the contemporary Deep South Republican Party. Nineteen years later, Helms led the unsuccessful charge to prevent establishment of a national holiday in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Some southern Republicans now insist that the GOP must reach out for black votes if it is to become a majority party. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) reached out in his 1984 reelection bid and won 20 percent of the black vote.

That was sufficient to defeat former governor William F. Winter, a prominent architect of black-white coalitions in the state, and to inspire some Republicans to follow suit.

In other instances, however, the GOP label has remained a scourge. Prichard, Ala., Mayor John Smith, who is black, was elected handily in 1980 when he did not broadcast his party affiliation. He ran for reelection in 1984 as an acknowledged Republican, however, and barely defeated a white Democrat in the overwhelmingly black city.

"My winning an election as a Republican may have more to do with my personal contact than accepting a political ideology or a particular line," Smith said.

State Sen. Michael A. Figures of Mobile, who also is black, put it in harsher terms that underscore how many southerners still view politics: "He got there by virtue of being black," Figures said. "He almost lost by being a Republican."

NEXT: Class lines and swing voters.