The Rev. Curtis W. Harris, a lifelong resident of Hopewell, Va., ran for Town Council seven times. That's how many times he lost.

"The white folks said I was 'unelectable,' " the black community organizer, civil rights activist and Baptist minister said recently. "That meant I didn't know how to behave myself enough to suit white folks."

Last spring, Harris finally won on the eighth try, garnering a resounding 75.1 percent of the votes cast in his race. The reason: Hopewell, a tiny industrial town just south of Richmond, had been forced through a lawsuit to abandon an at-large electoral system that many contended diluted the voting power of the town's black community.

The victory heralds the latest triumph by voting rights advocates who since 1982 have successfully challenged through lawsuits the at-large systems of six Virginia cities and towns.

As a result, three blacks and several other candidates not a part of small-town political machines have won offices in localities where none had done so before the lawsuits, most of them initiated by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The challenges, some say, may help reshape the political influence of blacks in Virginia's 229 cities and towns. Sixty-six blacks currently sit on local governing boards in Virginia, 20 more than a decade ago.

"There's immediate change as soon as the at-large system is knocked out," said Chan Kendrick, director of the ACLU's Virginia Voting Rights project.

In Hopewell, the ward system apparently gave new strength to the ballots of black voters. Harris' victory in May was handed to him by Ward 2, the town's predominantly black, working-class community. Few were surprised at his ultimate victory.

Explained Harris, "Black folks were voting for me all along."

In response to the lawsuits, local governing boards in Warrenton, Blackstone, Halifax, Prince Edward County and Farmville have established single-member district systems in which voters have chosen or will choose local representatives from newly drawn wards, some of them predominantly black.

A lawsuit against the at-large system in Norfolk, where blacks are 21 percent of the population, is in the appeals courts. Another is pending against the city of Emporia, where blacks are 45 percent of the population.

The ACLU plans more court challenges in as many as 20 other Virginia localities where blacks have not been able to break into local politics.

In Northern Virginia, Alexandria and Arlington elections are held at-large. This year, Arlington Republicans called for a change as well. GOP candidates historically fare better in ward system elections because Democrats' traditional strongholds are weakened.

But some political activists, calling the legal challenges "protest" efforts, say that at-large challenges alone will not bring blacks fully into Virginia's political mainstream.

"We need to get smart, start contributing to campaigns, fielding candidates white and black and getting involved in broad-based issues," the Richmond NAACP president, the Rev. Tyler C. Millner, said last week.

White officials in the localities whose at-large systems have been challenged typically have argued that blacks failed to win elections because of low voter turnout and lack of organization, not because of the at-large systems.

Also, Millner warned against campaigns in which a candidate's race is the decisive factor. "That kind of politics will not fly," he said.

Still, Kendrick considers the challenges significant because decisions affecting the quality of daily life -- trash collection, street repairs and school construction -- are made by officeholders in cities and towns.

No one knows that better than Curtis Harris, who reflects on the past from a church office that sits amid small stucco and clapboard houses and low-income housing projects in the town's predominantly black neighborhood. A few years ago, he said, Hopewell officials allocated millions of dollars in state and federal grant money to projects solely in the town's white community.

"After the complaints, they redirected $ 90,000 to the black community," Harris recalled.

Harris, director of the Virginia office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, campaigned in the spring for improved schools and increased economic development. Since taking office this summer, he has pledged to make the town's recreational facilities more available to Hopewell's low-income and minority residents.

"If you have a system of control by the white majority, then life will be maintained the way it was," said Kendrick. "If you can eliminate that power structure, then other people -- minorities, poor whites -- they then have an opportunity to voice their concerns."

A lawsuit against Warrenton's electoral process put that town's way of life on trial.

According to court documents, decisions made by the town's seven-member, all-white council created a community in which the disparity between blacks and whites in employment, housing and education was significant. Decisions were made by white officials who had no contact with blacks -- except those in subservient positions, such as gardeners and janitors -- and who had no knowledge of the needs of the black community, according to trial testimony.

Blacks "sense and fear a hidden line of separation that they dare not cross and feel left out of and alienated from town government," the Rev. Joseph E. Penn, a black pastor, testified.

In May, U.S. District Judge Robert R. Merhige ordered the Fauquier County town to draw up an election plan using the ward system. Under preliminary plans, at least one ward will be predominantly black when voters go to the polls next year.

Throughout the South, the number of challenges to at-large electoral systems skyrocketed after 1982, when Congress amended the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Under the amendments, election procedures can be successfully challenged if they have the effect of discriminating against minority communities. Previously, the act required proof that local officials had deliberately intended to discriminate against minorities.

In Virginia, one of only nine states whose histories of discrimination require them under the law to continue to seek federal approval of election changes, action has been comparatively slow.

Laughlin McDonald, director of the southern regional office of the ACLU and a national expert on voting issues, said civil rights groups have concentrated their efforts and resources on voting rights issues in states in the Deep South.

"The assumption was that things were worse in Mississippi and Tennessee, so Virginia has been out of the line of fire," explained McDonald.

New challenges could be thwarted by a new Reagan administration policy. Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds disclosed recently that the Justice Department no longer will consider whether election plans have discriminatory results when it approves thousands of such plans under the Voting Rights Act.

If at-large systems are struck down through lawsuits, local officials could devise plans that discriminate in different ways, according to McDonald. "As long as it's not worse, then Reynolds is saying his department is going to approve it," he said.

Each of the ACLU suits was against local governing boards that represented communities where blacks compose 20 percent to 49 percent of the population. Yet before the filing of the suits, no blacks had been able to win election among a field of white candidates.

In Farmville, known for taking one of the staunchest stands in the South against integration, a black funeral director and longtime activist, Carl Eggleston, was elected to the Town Council two years ago after the at-large system was abandoned there.

While the election of blacks in towns where blacks and whites rarely mingle is expected to be the immediate consequence of the changes, it is not the specific aim.

Under the new single-member district system, all of the incumbents on the Hopewell Town Council lost their bids for reelection to candidates who, except for Harris, were white.

"The immediate goal is to provide a black community the opportunity to elect a representative of its choice. They can elect black officials, they can elect white officials," explained McDonald. "They lack the ability to do that under [at-large] systems."