It is helpful at this moment - on the brink of the Democratic National Convention as the role of blacks is being contentiously pressed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson - to remember that Mr. Jackson is one of a community of political black leaders, past and present. He is not the leader.
Granted, no black has ever before become one of three finalists in a major party presidential nomination contest. This assures Mr. Jackson of a place in history. He has been articulate and energetic in campaigning and debate - although often erratic in his own sensitivity to the conventions of American pluralism.
It is, in all fairness, the moral imperative of justice that has impelled the progress of blacks in America, not the energy of any one individual or of any one race.
Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the civil rights act which greatly expanded black voting in the South. This was legislation publicized by a mostly white press, passed by an overwhelmingly white Congress, and signed by a white president.
This week, the Rev. F. D. Reese, a black minister who helped organize the early civil rights demonstrations, ran a close but losing contest for mayor of Selma, Ala., scene of some of the bitterest desegregation scenes. Blacks are a majority now in Selma, but formerly segregationist white mayor Joe Smitherman kept office in a contest that positively stressed the need for blacks and whites to ''work together.''
Again and again, over the past 20 years, Americans have decided in favor of unity and against division when confronting the issue of minority rights and opportunity.
Mr. Jackson is only one leader where race is concerned, and his effectiveness is assured only insofar as he himself adheres to the principles he espouses. For Jackson to protest that ''white women'' had taken his idea of a female vice-presidential nominee, that the ''white press'' is often guilty of ''Aryan arrogance,'' that criticism of his trips to the Caribbean are partly ''finding another way to call somebody a nigger,'' that Jewish leaders seek to make him a ''pariah'' and isolate him from the masses of his supporters, and that Walter Mondale has shunted him aside in considering a running mate, as Jackson charged in a recent interview, is to shift his weight to the side of division.
As Mayors Tom Bradley of Los Angeles, Harold Washington of Chicago, Richard Hatcher of Gary, Ind., and Wilson Goode of Philadelphia, have shown, blacks sometimes win elections. But as Selma's Reese found this week, they can also lose, and graciously.
Mr. Jackson has not won his party's nomination. The polls show that Walter Mondale is the preferred nominee among black Democrats, by a margin of 5 to 3. In a CBS/New York Times survey, only 4 percent of Jackson's supporters said they would be less likely to vote for Mondale or less likely to vote at all if Jackson does not endorse Mondale.
By such measures, as well as by a greater share of endorsements by black elected officials, Mondale could claim to be the leader of the black political community in 1984. A majority of blacks agree more with Ronald Reagan on the need for equal or greater defense spending than with Jackson, who seeks a cut in such spending. And blacks disagree with Jackson on the issue of runoff primaries, which Jackson intends to make an issue at the convention.
True, blacks vote sharply Democratic, but it wasn't always that way. It is as mistaken and demeaning to suggest that blacks form a monolithic bloc of votes that a Jackson can deliver as to suggest that whites or women or Jews or the media - groups Jackson has disparaged - are of one view and can be delivered by one leader.
The Democrats should emphasize racial and ethnic unity at their convention, and not get sidetracked by the rhetoric of division.