Former education secretary T.H. Bell, in a book scheduled for publication in March, writes that during his four years in President Reagan's Cabinet he heard "mid-level right-wing staffers" in the administration make racial slurs and other derogatory remarks.

When a bill to establish the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a national holiday was awaiting Reagan's signature, "these bigots referred to Dr. King as 'Martin Lucifer Coon,' " Bell wrote.

"They delighted in making other slurs," he said. When State Department issues in the Middle East were discussed, Arabs were called "sand niggers," according to Bell. And Title IX, which prohibits discrimination against women, was referred to as "the lesbian's bill of rights," said Bell, now a professor of education at the University of Utah.

Bell, in his book, did not name those who had made the remarks. In a telephone interview yesterday, he said he could not remember specific names, but said those to whom he was referring did not include Reagan, Cabinet-level officials or high-level employes. But he said he remembers conversations, in offices and the White House cafeteria, in which employes from clerical workers to mid-level staff made racial remarks he felt were in bad taste.

"I just remember the comments," he said. "As you sit waiting for an appointment in {then-White House counselor Edwin} Meese's office or {then-White House chief of staff} Jim Baker's, you heard this kind of thing, especially on Meese's side," Bell said. "It's just an attitudinal tone." Meese is now attorney general.

Larry Speakes, who served as White House spokesman until January and now is a vice president at Merrill Lynch in New York, said, "I never heard those references . . . certainly not from the upper echelon. It was not something that permeated the White House culture."

Justice Department spokesman Terry Eastland declined to comment for Meese. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater told the Associated Press that he did not believe Bell's charges.

Bell's book, "The Thirteenth Man: A Reagan Cabinet Memoir," details his tenure during Reagan's first term, focusing on his struggle with White House conservatives over budget cuts, the department's future and personnel appointments. Galleys of the book, published by The Free Press, began circulating this week.

Bell, who resigned his post in frustration shortly after Reagan's 1984 reelection, described the tension between "movement conservatives," including Meese, and those the conservatives labeled "pragmatists," including Bell, Baker and Vice President Bush.

The conservative group, Bell wrote, "was almost like a secret society. They looked after each other. They shared horror stories about the rest of us . . . . "

Of the racial slurs, Bell wrote: "I do not mean to imply that these scurrilous remarks were common utterances . . . but I heard them when issues related to civil rights enforcement weighed heavily on my mind so it seemed obvious they were said for my benefit, since they often accompanied sardonic references to 'Comrade Bell.' "

He said Meese once asked him jokingly if a patterned tie Bell was wearing bore the hammer and sickle.

In his book, Bell describes Reagan as "a very astute politician." In the interview, he said he heard Reagan speak only positively of civil rights efforts.

"On reflection, maybe it was not fair of me to mention that," Bell said yesterday of the book's references to racial remarks. "But I wanted my readers to understand the tone and the background and I felt the distressing bad-taste humor."

The book describes Bell's problems in "fitting in" at the White House, referring to his first Cabinet meeting, when Reagan passed around the now-famous jar of jelly beans and each Cabinet member took a handful.

"I decided then and there that I wouldn't eat those sugary, sticky morsels just to be in step with the others," Bell wrote. Also, the chair assigned to Bell, who stands 5-foot-5, was so big that his feet did not reach the floor if he sat back.

"I didn't like jelly beans and my chair didn't fit. Cabinet meetings were apparently not going to be enjoyable for me," he wrote.