When Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis W. Sullivan addressed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference annual convention in Richmond last week, the delegates warmly applauded the Bush Administration's only black Cabinet member. Many crowded around him afterward to shake his hand.

"We're happy he's in the Cabinet," said the Rev. Spiver Gordon, a city councilman in Eutaw, Ala.

Sullivan has made a point of speaking to black groups, accepting one or two invitations a week from organizations such as the 100 Black Men National Convention, the Minority Health Career Seminar and the National Association of Black Journalists. More than that, he has made minority issues a high priority at HHS, the sprawling department with jurisdiction over a range of health care and human service programs from Head Start to the National Institutes of Health.

Yet the quiet-spoken former president of Morehouse School of Medicine found himself in the midst of a sudden controversy earlier this month when Rep. Fortney H. "Pete" Stark (D-Calif.), a liberal, said Sullivan was a "disgrace to his race" because he opposes national health insurance and is not doing enough within the administration to help blacks on health care and poverty.

Stark's remarks provoked an angry response from Sullivan and many black leaders and Stark was eventually forced to apologize. The controversy, however, underscored the difficult role Sullivan has chosen for himself as an advocate for minority programs in a Republican administration -- and an advocate for a Republican administration with minority groups.

"The lesson really is that within the black community there's a range and diversity of views. . . . " he said this week. "To suggest that I'm less committed because I don't agree with one set of views is wrong."

Yesterday, Sullivan flew to Kennebunkport, Maine, to discuss pending civil rights legislation, which the administration has threatened to veto in the face of strong support from black groups. White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said Sullivan wanted to talk to President Bush about the bills, how they might be changed and "about how we might talk to various constituency groups to get support for our position."

If Fitzwater means traditional civil rights groups such as the SCLC, the response is likely to be similar to the reception Sullivan got in Richmond -- a polite, even enthusiastic personal welcome but little agreement on substantive issues.

In his speech to the convention, Sullivan ticked off what he regards as the major achievements of HHS in areas affecting minorities while he has been secretary:

Making pregnant women and small children in families with income below 133 percent of the poverty line automatically eligible for Medicaid, "opening the doors for over 1 million more pregnant women and children than last year."

"The largest expansion of Head Start in the history of that program -- $750 million in the last two fiscal years."

A new program to help solve problems of "the crisis of the minority male."

An increase of "an additional $117 million in fiscal 1991 for minority health programs and the training of minority health professionals."

The use of his "bully pulpit" to get tobacco firms to drop plans to target black neighborhoods with cigarette advertising, and to convince low-income people to avoid drugs, tobacco and alcohol, improve their diet, and get children vaccinated.

And he noted that he is charged by President Bush with developing a plan to guarantee health care to all Americans. This, he has said, will not be the national health insurance plan favored by Stark and many Democrats, but some way to provide health care within the current private-public insurance system because, he explained, "national health systems around the world" are characterized by rationing, "exorbitant cost, lack of economic efficiencies {and} bureaucracy."

While the SCLC delegates universally criticized Stark for his remarks on Sullivan, they echoed some of his specific criticisms, particularly on national health insurance.

The HHS secretary, said Joseph Lowery, the SCLC president, is "trying to say black people can be conservative without being racists. That's not the issue. The issue is what does this administration propose to do about 35 million poor in regard to health care, education, job training? I don't see the program."

"Dr. Sullivan's in a tough position -- doing the best he can do under the guidelines and boundaries he's working under in the Bush Administration," said Mike Lee, 42, of Richmond, a sales representative. "I definitely don't think he's an Uncle Tom, or a disgrace, but by the same token, it's kind of hard to understand how a black appointee can sit there and ignore and hold his tongue at a lot of the things going down in this admininstration."

"People basically think he's a puppet," he added. "His heart might be in the right place but he's doing little."

Yet that view is hardly unanimous among blacks involved in health-care issues or in other civil rights groups.

Charles Johnson, a Duke University Medical School professor and president of the National Medical Association, the organization of black doctors, said his group recently voted a commendation of Sullivan for "raising the consciousness of this country" about the disparity between the care available to whites and the "health services for African-American and minority Americans."

"He's gone a long way every time he gets a chance to speak of the issues relating to disparities of care. It is wrong for any group to think that Sullivan could right away change the policies of the national administration."

Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the NAACP, makes the same point -- that any official white or black works within the parameters set by the president.

"He's doing his job for blacks and the country, according to what he can do," said Hooks. "I don't know anyone who says a Cabinet officer is superior to the president. . . . There is such a thing as using the immense prestige" of his position and career "to move the president" and, Hooks said, Sullivan is doing that.