MONTGOMERY, ALA. — Oscar Kyles sports the black boots and dark-blue shirt of an Alabama state trooper. At one time it would have been unthinkable for him to wear such a uniform.
Back in the late 1960s, he recalls stopping one night at a truck stop near Mobile to get a hamburger. After the waitress refused to serve him because he was black, a deputy sheriff who was dining with several troopers approached him.
''He hurled racial epithets at me. I turned to go, and he was walking right behind me. He was telling me that he'd pop my head with his billy club if I came in again,'' Mr. Kyles says, pausing. ''The state troopers just sat and watched.''
Times have changed since the days when being confronted by an Alabama sheriff or state trooper caused many blacks to shudder. Today the Alabama state police is one of the most integrated state police units in the nation.
Thirty-four percent of the force is black, and the department appointed its first black major - the highest ranking nonpolitical job - last June. Kyles is now a captain.
The agency's evolution offers a window into the controversial world of affirmative action. Supporters of the complex web of federal laws that seek to promote racial diversity see the state trooper barracks here as a case study of the good that can come from such programs, even though the integration in this case came only after a long legal struggle.
Yet others argue that, even if there have been affirmative-action successes, the program overall causes more harm than good and should be rolled back.
The integration was the result of a 24-year lawsuit that required the once all-white Alabama Department of Public Safety to comply with court-ordered affirmative action. Yet while Alabama has made substantial progress in hiring minorities, the struggle to integrate is an on-going problem at police departments across the country.
''There are serious problems in hiring and promoting minorities in a number of police departments,'' says Richard Talbot Seymour, director of the employment discrimination project for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and the Law in Washington. ''Some of them have been addressed in litigation, some not. Alabama is a good example of a state where a great deal of good had been done as a result of litigation and an example of how tragic it was that it took litigation.''
But while the affirmative-action program here has generally received high marks, many conservatives say such programs are not always helpful.
''I think affirmative action in general has had very mixed effects,'' says Dinesh D'Souza, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. ''It has produced some important successes but also many spectacular failures.
''I think it has undoubtedly contributed to a sense of Balkanization and grievance in the society,'' says Mr. D'Souza, the author of the controversial book, ''End of Racism.'' ''So to that degree, as a national matter, I think affirmative-action programs need to be reevaluated.''
The lawsuit, filed in 1972, required the department to hire one black officer for each white trooper until 25 percent of the force was black. At first, then Gov. George Wallace tried to delay the progress by ordering the department not to hire anyone to replace people who retired or died.
Captain Kyles heard about the court affirmative-action order and applied to the department in 1973. He was assigned to a troop in Mobile, and he describes his early experiences as a culture shock. ''I felt like I'd infiltrated a group that had not been infiltrated before,'' he says. ''There was some animosity.... We were oddities to each other.''
But as more blacks were hired, racial attitudes and unfair practices began to dissolve slowly. Officers learned to work together as new troopers, both black and white, were hired. Though blacks say prejudice still exists on some levels, for the most part it is not overt.
Chance to compete
Black troopers say the integration couldn't have occurred without the affirmative-action policy.
''If you're doing business as usual, you're going to continue to do business as usual,'' says Capt. Tyrone Anderson, who works in the department's bureau of investigation. ''I'm not for quotas, but this was simply a tool to guarantee a person an opportunity to compete.''
''The Alabama troopers were the trained attack dogs of George Wallace who beat the marchers at the Pettus Bridge in Selma,'' says Richard Cohen, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which brought the lawsuit. ''They not only lived under a regime of racism; they enforced a regime of racism throughout the state.''
Still, by 1988, although the hiring goal had been achieved and 25 percent of the force was black, no black officer held a rank above sergeant. The court intervened again, requiring the department to establish and meet promotional guidelines. Today, 25 percent of the force's supervisors are black.
Last May, the lawsuit was dropped after attorneys in the case and the department agreed that its terms had been met. Now the Alabama Department of Public Safety faces a test of its own: Will it continue to hire and promote minorities?
''The stage is set to do the right thing,'' says Lt. Johnny Isaac. ''I'll be anxious to see if it happens.''
Mr. Cohen says systems, such as fair tests and personnel manuals, are in place to help ensure fairness. Moreover, he adds: ''There are black people in every rank now. There's a black major in the room when promotion decisions are made. It's harder when you have black colleagues there to act on your racist impulses.''