Jack Kemp had watched the civil rights revolution from the sidelines before arriving in New Orleans for the 1964 American Football League All-Star game. He was a professional football player, used to having black teammates who for the most part did not have to confront the daily realities of racial segregation in the South.

But on his first night in the French Quarter, Kemp saw black players turned away from nightclubs and refused rides by "white" taxis. When they announced they would not play in New Orleans the next day, he convened a team meeting to declare his support for the walkout, though it meant risking his starring role as quarterback and team captain.

For Kemp, it set a pattern. As a Republican congressman he defied party conservatives by pushing sanctions against the apartheid government of South Africa; as housing and urban development secretary he put the interests of poor tenants over housing developers; and as the GOP's vice presidential nominee, he is campaigning hard for African American votes his ticket has little hope of winning.

Kemp said recently that the pain and humiliation he felt for his black teammates in the 1960s became "etched in my memory," and that when he got into politics, he pledged to be their "voice" in the Republican Party.

He enters tonight's vice presidential debate in St. Petersburg, Fla., as the embodiment of that pledge, the unlikely nominee of a party that in recent presidential elections has virtually conceded the black vote. Even Kemp's presence on the ticket as Robert J. Dole's running mate has done little to increase support among African American voters who are expected to vote in overwhelming numbers for President Clinton.

But the significance of Kemp's message of equal opportunity -- sounded from Harlem to virtually all-white audiences in Wall Street boardrooms, suburban Detroit plants and Montana wheat fields -- may not be immediately measurable. Even if Dole loses, Kemp has played a distinctive role in the 1996 campaign, boosting his stock as a presidential candidate in 2000 when last year's GOP assault on social programs may have faded from memory.

"He is very comfortable with black people, and they sense he's comfortable," said Eddie N. Williams, president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "If he still articulates some of the social policy concerns he's articulating now, he'll turn some heads." But he added that any Republican faces problems overcoming the party's history.

Far from glossing over the past, Kemp asks forgiveness from black crowds, then rares back in a gospel-like oration filled with black heroes, biblical allusions and street talk -- a spiel some African Americans find patronizing. When a black reporter at a Nashville forum prefaced a question by noting Kemp's reputation as a "semi-soul brother," the candidate shot back, "Whaddaya mean semi,' man?"

If Kemp's crusade seems quixotic at times, it was based on the calculation in August that increasing the black vote a few percentage points in battleground states could make the difference in a tight race. Dole strategists hoped a larger benefit could come from attracting white suburbanites put off by the extreme rhetoric of congressional Republicans.

Kemp describes his mission as the start of healthy competition for a voting bloc long taken for granted by Democrats and written off by Republicans responsible not long ago for the "southern strategy" that pursued white votes by fanning racial fears. He wears the label "bleeding heart conservative" like a badge of honor.

Occasionally, he has mistaken it as a license to range freely in sensitive terrain, inviting criticism as he did recently when he praised the "self-help" teachings of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and when he jettisoned his long-standing support of affirmative action to conform with Dole's position -- an about-face some black politicians say undermined him.

"The fact that a white man can walk in Harlem doesn't seem like a profile in courage," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a Harlem Democratic leader, who dismisses Kemp's outreach to blacks as a diversion from Republican efforts to dismantle Great Society programs.

"There's nothing Jack Kemp or Bob Dole have said that would allow black folks or poor folks to think we're in for anything," said Rangel. "We are not on the agenda."

But William H. Gray III, who once served in the House with Kemp and is now president of the United Negro College Fund, said Kemp's overture is "record-breaking" for a Republican. "The message is, 'I want to compete for your vote, I think you're important,' " said the former Democratic congressman. "That's the number one step for political salvation."

Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1940s, Kemp had little contact with African Americans. He played football against black athletes and befriended the only black driver in his father's trucking company. He knew that Nat King Cole had moved near his all-white Wilshire Boulevard neighborhood, although he was unaware until recently that the word "nigger" was burned in the black crooner's front lawn or that his daughter, Natalie Cole, was harassed when she reported to a white high school.

The young Kemp was exposed to liberal influences. His mother, Frances Pope Kemp, was a Spanish teacher and social worker who inculcated her four sons in the "golden rule" and respect for other cultures.

But nothing much mattered in those early years except football. "I was maniacal," he said in an interview.

Football became an education as well as a sport. At Occidental College and later in the AFL, Kemp learned that skin color was meaningless as long as his blockers gave him protection and his receivers broke open for a pass.

Off the field, however, the same logic did not apply in the land of Jim Crow. When his San Diego Chargers went to Houston in 1960 to play the Oilers, the team stayed in University of Houston dorms because no hotel would accept black players. On the eve of the game, the Chargers went to a movie. Waiting for the lights to dim, Kemp found out that his black co-captain, Charlie McNeil, and all his other black teammates had to sit in the balcony.

"Did you know Charlie and I can't sit together?" Kemp, stunned, told coach Sid Gillman. "We're outta here," replied Gillman, and he and his team walked out of the theater. The Chargers returned to Houston later that year for the AFL championship. As the national anthem was played, Kemp looked over at his father on the 50-yard line. McNeil's father had to sit in a section of the end zone roped off for blacks.

"It really just hurt to think that Charlie and I could walk onto the field and play, but his dad couldn't sit with my dad," Kemp recently recalled.

The racism angered him, but did not inspire action until the 1964 All-Star game, which because of the player boycott was moved from New Orleans to Houston -- a city by then farther along on the road to desegregating.

"The only white who would take a stand {was} Jack Kemp," recalled Ernie Ladd, a black teammate. "He made it known he wasn't for that type of activity."

Years later, as a congressman from Buffalo, Kemp worked closely with black colleagues on a number of issues alien to conservative Republicans, such as setting a national holiday for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and sanctions on South Africa.

One of his pet projects in the House and later as a Cabinet member was creation of urban enterprise zones, an idea based in part on the industrialization policies of the late governor Luiz Munoz Marin of Puerto Rico. Munoz began a program called Operation Bootstrap, which offered tax incentives to U.S. firms locating in Puerto Rico. Kemp wants to waive capital gains taxes for investments in blighted communities.

Kemp considers his time as HUD secretary, along with football, as the "seminal event in my life." He had been introduced to the problems of public housing by Robert L. Woodson Sr., who runs a Washington-based center that helps tenants take control of their projects.

For his swearing-in, Kemp invited two dozen of the community leaders to whom he had been introduced by Woodson. He later traveled to Chicago's LeClair Court project and pledged to make public housing residents HUD's "primary clients" among the other groups vying for HUD resources: big-city mayors who want federal grants and real estate developers who want more lax regulations and subsidies.

"Most Democrats worked with mayors, most Republicans with developers," said Ken Blackwell, Kemp's undersecretary for intergovernmental relations. "We made a decision early on to put at the top of our list low- and moderate-income residents."

Kemp spent the night in a Philadelphia project to get a tenant's perspective. He escorted businessmen and local officials on project tours to encourage their assistance. After spotting crack cocaine use in one facility, he ordered public housing authorities nationwide to report what they were doing to stop drug trafficking.

When tenant leaders testified on Capitol Hill, he rode their bus to his office, then invited them for lunch. And he absorbed their despair, a lesson he shares on the stump today when he speaks of a young boy in Chicago's Henry Horner project who was asked what he wanted to be.

"If I grow up, Mr. Kemp, I want to be a bus driver," the child said.

Kemp was no less committed inside the administration. He hired several blacks for top slots, including Undersecretary Blackwell, two assistant secretaries, and four deputy assistant secretaries.

He was less successful in advancing policy goals. Budget Director Richard G. Darman led the conservative resistance. "They were constantly burying our policy initiatives," said Alfred A. DelliBovi, Kemp's deputy. "The question was funding. That's where Darman knifed us every time."

The Los Angeles riot of 1992 became Kemp's biggest test. DelliBovi said his boss argued at a Cabinet meeting to turn South Central, the epicenter of looting, into a laboratory for the "opportunity society." He called for rebuilding businesses, job creation and special tax incentives to draw capital into the area.

"We wanted Jack to be the lead," said Blackwell. But the decision was made to have a task force, headed by DelliBovi and a deputy education secretary, work within existing programs at no additional expense. Darman's forces won again.

Four years ago, Kemp got out of public service and the public eye for the first time since he turned professional quarterback in 1957. He began to make big money as a guest speaker, consultant and director of several corporate boards.

But even in his "wilderness years," as Kemp calls them, he stayed connected to African Americans. He joined the board of Howard University and actively lobbied for its annual appropriations. He invested in black-owned capital venture firms to "prove," Kemp said, "that capitalism will work in the inner cities."

Politically, he found himself increasingly out of step with his party as it lurched to the right. While most leading Republicans, including Dole, backed the California initiative to outlaw affirmative action programs, Kemp railed publicly against it.

His differences with Dole on the issue had to be resolved before the ticket could be completed. The rationale for Kemp's shift worked out with Dole's staff was that Dole would speak for the ticket and that just because Kemp no longer supports racially-set quotas does not mean he opposes "affirmative opportunity and affirmative effort" by the government.

From the start, Kemp said, he knew he wanted a very different role than Dole himself played in 1976 as President Gerald R. Ford's running mate. Dole assured him, he said, that the campaign would be " inclusionary . . . doing the things you like to do.' "

Dole told him that he wouldn't have to play the role of "attack dog," emp recalled. "He knew I wouldn't."

CAPTION: Jack Kemp considers HUD service and football as "seminal" in his life.

CAPTION: As HUD secretary, Jack Kemp, shown with community activist Kimi Gray, pushed to turn over operation of Kenilworth-Parkside projects to tenants.