Several days ago I spoke at a local school where they were honoring the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As I waited for the audience to assemble, I saw a tow-headed boy of about 8 wearing a sweater that read, "I'm a Redskin."

Even though I sensed the kid was late and rushing to his classroom, I said, "Hi! Which Redskin are you."

"Doug Williams," he said, bouncing down the steps, dragging his books and sandwich bag behind him.

A couple of hours later, at my home, my husky 16-month-old grandson David was running to me in a gray warm-up suit with the bold lettering: Washington Redskins.

I laughed, thinking what it all meant. This nation's capital is a nicer, prouder city today than it was when I arrived in 1961, and anyone can see why by looking at the history of the Washington Redskins.

I thought of that white "Doug Williams," and my own Butz-sized grandson, in the pleasant knowledge that a good football team both mirrors and shapes society.

When I came to this city with John F. Kennedy in 1961, Washington was still Jim Crow socially, and in many other respects. So were the Redskins, whose owner, George Preston Marshall, had defiantly refused to let a black player on his gridiron. Marshall thought his constituency was the white south, running through Virginia, the Carolinas, right down into Georgia, where the Atlanta Falcons weren't even an expansion team.

Trouble was, the Redskins weren't competitive, so the magnolia belt wasn't very supportive in the 1950s and early 1960s. And many blacks in Washington were boycotting Marshall's lily-white version of football.

Eventually, failure overrode foolishness, and Marshall decided to move into the real world and let blacks wear the burgundy and gold. They decided to bring in Bobby Mitchell and other black players.

Now, believe this. I went to the Redskins office and bought 20 season tickets -- tickets that no one else wanted in those days. I let my friends have some of them in a foolish orgy of generosity. These days you can offer up your mother-in-law and a block of IBM shares, but you will have to wait until Methuselah looks like a baby to get a season ticket.

Why the change? Because the Redskins are now everybody's team.

The changes the Redskins have wrought in Washington are economical, social, political and racial.

Newspapers here reap a bundle when the Redskins win, which has been often in recent years. When they win, people buy, and read, and read, and read. Television stations here earn thousands of extra dollars because the audiences for the evening news sports shows, and for things like "Redskins Sidelines," "Redskins Playbook," and "Countdown to Kickoff" all draw phenomenal audiences after the Redskins have beaten the Chicago Bears or the Minnesota Vikings. Local bars and restaurants can't pour top-dollar booze fast enough to satisfy the appetites of those celebrating victory.

You won't know what political civility the Redskins bring to your nation's capital until you walk into the Lombardi Room at RFK Stadium, where the Redskins owner, Jack Kent Cooke, gives his pre-game party.

Over there you see a victim of the Watergate scandal; and over here you see Judge John Sirica, who sent some Watergate people to prison. You see liberals like Eugene McCarthy, Ed Muskie, George McGovern, fighting for fresh shrimp against conservatives Paul Laxalt, John Warner and occasionally Attorney General Ed Meese. The media is always represented from the conservative likes of George Will and William Safire to Lesley Stahl, Ted Koppel and at least one wiser soul who shall remain unnamed.

The remarkable thing is that I have never heard any of these people in the Lombardi Room joust about any political issue. They express a boring sameness of anxieties about whether Coach Joe Gibbs can get his charges to San Diego, and out of the Super Bowl with a triumph.

And race, color, r, thigh sizes? Nobody admits to giving a damn who throws, catches or carries, as long as the Redskins win.

The codewords here are achievement, success, and most of all, victory.

Any player who matches those codewords is a hero, and is beloved across all bounds of race, class and salary. The fans here will boo a black quarterback or a white one if they feel the man taking the snap from center is not up to the job of producing a championship ring.

The Redskins have produced social change that is remarkable to watch. They offer a lesson to corporations, to the Pentagon, to the people who worry about America's international trade posture: recruit the best people you can find, ignore race and deprivations of background, train your recruits to compete, and then sit back and enjoy the fruits of victory.

Could a football team offer this kind of lesson to an entire nation?

Yes, I think it could.

Carl Rowan is a nationally syndicated columnist and has been a regular at Redskin home games over the lat 25 years.