Which way will the nation's blacks gain more: By supporting a sympathetic Democratic front-runner in 1984, such as Walter Mondale? Or by running a black presidential candidate of their own, such as Chicago's charismatic Jesse Jackson?
It's a tough question which divides not only veteran political analysts but civil rights leaders as well.
Both the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) argue that a black candidate's entry in the race could ultimately work against black interests. It could, they say, make the Democratic Party feel it has already lost the black vote and siphon vital support from a candidate with a strong civil rights record who might have a better chance of winning.
The first priority of blacks, NAACP chief Benjamin L. Hooks insists, should be to keep President Reagan from winning a second term.
Yet other civil rights leaders and a number of political scientists who specialize in black politics argue just as forcefully that issues of prime concern to blacks are more apt to get a thorough national airing and sympathetic ear if a black candidate does run. They add that blacks would then have more incentive to register and vote on election day. Only about two-thirds of eligible blacks are registered to vote.
A small Chicago meeting of black political leaders two weeks ago in effect cleared the way for a black presidential candidate by endorsing the concept and setting up a committee to look into fund raising and strategy questions. This group, which calls itself Black Coalition '84, did not endorse a particular candidate. It will meet again in September.
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who has been consistently running third (behind Walter Mondale and John Glenn) in most Democratic voter preference polls, said after the coalition's initial meeting that it was ''highly likely'' that he or another black would run. He reasons that a black entry would strengthen rather than damage the party through the stepped-up participation of blacks in the debate and an improved voter turnout. He says he is not bothered by Mr. Hooks's views.
''The NAACP doesn't endorse candidates anyhow,'' he says. ''He's giving his opinion of where things are now. It's not a mass body of blacks who made that decision. Ben and I have been friends for 20 years . . . and when all things are cleared away, Ben Hooks and I will still be on the same side of history.''
A number of other independent political scientists, noting that blacks have been feeling particularly ignored by the Democrats recently, agree that a black candidacy now could serve the nation's blacks very well.
Lucius Barker, Edna Gellhorn professor of public affairs at Washington University in St. Louis and a leading scholar in black politics, says he thinks the long-term benefits of running a black candidate in 1984 far outweigh any disadvantages for blacks.
A ''concrete candidacy,'' he says, would not only spur black voter registration and turnout, as Chicago Mayor Harold Washington's campaign proved, but also guarantee that the views and concerns of most blacks play a major role in the public issues debate.
''With the focus given presidential politics by the media, a candidacy just makes a wonderful device for building political agendas and educating the public - it's the kind of information opportunity you just couldn't buy.''
As for the argument that a black candidate might hurt the prospects of a potential ally, Dr. Barker says: ''I would suppose that a (Sen.) Gary Hart or a (Sen. Alan) Cranston would hurt a Mondale, too - it's much too speculative to try to base a decision on that.''
If the primary goal of running a black candidate is short term - to influence the choice of a Democratic nominee and the party's platform - political experts agree that a decision must be made very soon for the strongest impact. Many of the people who want to run as convention delegates are now being picked over by candidates already running.
''If past nominations are any indication, they're often wrapped up very early in the primaries and you have to jump on the bandwagon well ahead of time,'' notes James Lengle, professor of government at Georgetown University. But he adds that the threat of a black candidacy even now should be used as a bargaining tool with contenders such as Mr. Mondale, who stand to lose the most from black campaign competition. ''If conversations aren't going on, they should be - or blacks may be losing a great deal.''
''The convention is not a very good bargaining arena - by the time you get there, you don't usually have much left to bargain about,'' agrees Ronald Walters, professor of political science at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Yet he reasons that bargaining of sorts can go on even after the convention if blacks are miffed by its results. By threatening to vote Republican or for an independent candidate such as John Anderson, they can, in effect, say to the Democratic nominee that he cannot take 20-25 percent of his voting supporters for granted. ''It all depends on the depth of alienation in the black community, '' he adds.