Whenever they start cleaning up the book shelves of this office and throwing away old documents I get distracted and waste a couple of hours. This time it is a discarded red-covered copy of the World Almanac 1958, published by the New York World-Telegram and Sun.
I turned immediately to something that interested me, ''Lynchings.'' It is a disagreeable subject. As a matter of fact it is one of the most disagreeable subjects I know. Yet in a sense it is inspiring, too. Look in the current 1981 World Almanac (''Over 41 million Copies Sold. . . The Best Selling Almanac for 113 Years'') and you won't find ''Lynchings'' even listed. There aren't any. This distressing blot on America's good name that was whispered about all over the world is no more.
The Almanac of 1958 was different. Consider the change. In 1915, forty years before, when David Wark Griffith, America's first major film director made the famous ''The Birth of a Nation,'' audiences cheered when the robed knights of the Ku Klux Klan came galloping to save the imperiled heroine.
That sets me off on another sidetrack. Griffith (1880-1948) went to work on the old Biograph lot when the movie industry went to Hollywood. Griffith, you will learn from the office encyclopedia, ''introduced the fade-in, the fade-out, the long shot, the full shot, the close-up, the moving-camera shot, the flash-back, crosscutting and MONTAGE.'' Whew! He was the pioneer. And, to come back to my original subject, he turned for romance to a social cleavage that was still a legitimate subject of melodrama halfway between the Civil War and today, however repulsive it is now.
Let's look at page 312 of my soon-to-be-discarded World Almanac of 1958. It is unemotionally labeled ''Vital Statistics: Lynchings in the United States.'' It lists 115 in 1900, and 130 in 1901, but in 1959 there were none. Figures were gathered by Tuskegee Institute, Ala., the Negro school, the Almanac says. In parallel columns giving ''year,'' ''race'' (Whites or Negroes), and ''total'' the book matter-of-factly presents the statistical record. Raise your hands in horror or in thankfulness as the mood strikes you, but the point is that the figures decline and ultimately disappear.
Let's trace the figures by five-year intervals. I will use the same system as the almanac does, ''W'' for white, ''N'' for Negro. I will just interpolate a bit to say that the year 1902 was the first with the total below three digits.
Year W N Total 1900 9 106 115 1905 5 57 62 1910 9 67 76 1915 13 56 69 1920 8 53 61 1925 0 17 17 1930 1 20 21 1940 1 4 5 1945 0 1 1 1950 1 1 2 1955 0 3 3 1956 0 0 0 1900-1956 195 1,795 1,990
The World Almanac for the next year, by the way, drops this tabular comparison of lawlessness for good. Besides race, of course, it involved the problems of the frontier. In dismissing the matter the 1959 Almanac explains - ''Full publicity, punishment of outlaws and other drastic efforts to stop lawlessness cut down mob action until there were no lynchings in 1952, 1953, 1954, 1956 and 1957. There was one in 1951 and there were 3 in 1955.''
And so in these calm figures is the melodrama of a social revolution: the gradual winding down of an unacceptable 300-year ethnic relationship, the tardy but nevertheless inexorable adjustment to a better way of things. It's an improvement that, it is to be hoped, is still going on in other fields. America is often criticized, and justly, for its imperfections but it has its victories, too, and its aspirations are noble. In casting up the final account let's put this one in.