WASHINGTON. — Washington-- I first met William P. Steven in 1948, when I became a wet-eared, 23-year-old newsroom employee of the Minneapolis Tribune, and he was the new managing editor, fresh out of Tulsa, Okla.
Steven's Oklahoma connection was enough to arouse suspicion a black journalism graduate, at a time the NAACP and Oklahoma were at war over whether a black woman named Ada Sipuel could study law at the University of Oklahoma. I just knew that I would be lynched journalistically by ''an Okie redneck.''
I have often admitted to shame over my 1948 prejudices, and to joy over discovering that Bill Steven was one of the fairest, bravest editors I would know over 43 years in journalism. Steven threw some tough reportorial challenges at me and then became my mentor, my critic and collaborator.
Bill died in his sleep last week, a month short of his 83rd birthday. The saddening telephone call from his wife Lucy jolted me into remembrances of the things, big and small, that had made Steven a great journalist for almost half a century.
I remembered his steely integrity. He asked me to do a series of articles called ''Grow or Die,'' about how small towns in the Upper Midwest were being choked to death by greedy bankers and by the dominant families that fought off the ''intrusions'' of new industries. When the head of the most powerful banking chain in the area called Steven to complain, Steven said, in effect, ''B.S. You know what we've printed is the truth.'' Some 10 years later that banker would tell me that it was the truth, and that Steven's rebuff made him immensely proud of the Minneapolis Tribune.
Most of all, Bill had vision. In 1951, when most American newspapers thought covering ''race relations'' meant running a paragraph about some black being convicted of stealing chickens, Steven sent me to my native South to write about the plight of post-World War II blacks. Daring, he called that series ''How Far From Slavery?''
He foresaw the morass into which American teen-agers were wading, ordering a series on ''Marrying Too Young,'' which warned of a larger social curse of even unmarried ''children having children.'' He asked me for a series on ''The Family: a Failure?'', which highlighted the ominous rise in marital breakups, the rush of women into the work force, the drift toward impoverished one-parent families.
Back in 1950, when some NAACP leaders thought it ''counterproductive'' to say blacks sought social equality as well as all the other equalities, Steven was arguing that where there is no social intercourse based on mutual respect, there can never be economic or political equality. He practiced what he preached.
My wife, Viv, and I met the luminaries of America and the world at dinner parties given by Bill and Lucy Steven. As editor of the Houston Chronicle, he took special pleasure in inviting others from his rich, WASPish enclave to dine with his black ''house guest.'' He liked to watch them writhe in efforts to hide their personal bigotries.
Steven made me aware that great editors not only produce great newspapers; they provoke greatness within the communities they serve. ''You ever notice how few race riots occur in cities where the newspapers stand up for justice?'' he once asked me.
I say my farewell to Bill by quoting his words when I told him there were things the American people needed to know about the ultimate cost of Jim Crow schools, the rapid deterioration of the ''traditional'' family, or whatever:
''Well, goddamit, let's tell em.''
.` He spoke his own best epitaph.
Carl Rowan is a syndicated columnist.