FRANKLIN, INDIANA. — Franklin, Indiana -- A white man attending the Williams lecture series at Franklin College demanded to know how I could say that, with the proper political leadership, America can move away from racial polarization, murders and civil unrest of the sort we have seen in Los Angeles.
He still seemed skeptical when I said that even though racism seems to be destroying America today, I do not believe that, in their hearts, most Americans want it that way.
The kind of pessimism he and others in the audience expressed exists in every city in which I have been in recent weeks. I think we Americans have to look harder for reasons to believe in ourselves and each other. Think of a few recent things you've seen on television:
You saw black men, allegedly from the 8-Trey Crips gang, beating a white truck driver, Reginald Denny, to the brink of death. You also saw Mr. Denny's relatives thanking the black people who rescued him and got him to a hospital. On ''The Today Show'' Wednesday morning you saw two black doctors who saved the eyesight and the life of Mr. Denny, who had every bone in his face fractured.
White victim of black thugs, black menders and healers of compassion and skill. You have to find hope in that if you understand that it wasn't long ago that most hospitals in the United States, north or south, did not want black and white patients on the same ward, and surely did not want black doctors attending to white patients.
I cannot embrace despair, because I remember what good moral and political leadership achieved in the turbulent 1960s. The non-violent rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr. pricked the consciences of millions of white people. The powerful platform of the presidency was used by John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to support racial justice, not to play ''the race card'' for political advantage.
I refuse to believe that the hundreds of thousands of blacks and whites who joined in such things as the great civil-rights march on Washington in 1963 were fundamentally better human beings than those who have today embraced the politics of fear, jealousy, resentment and vindictiveness. For good or ill, the people of America tend to reflect their leadership.
I told the Franklin audience that, as unpalatable as my remarks might be in Republican country, Ronald Reagan and George Bush had made bigotry fashionable again.
The mood of most of the white majority in 1963 was supportive of a wide range of private and governmental programs to redress centuries-old injustices. The mood turned mean a dozen years ago.
Still, hope remains. A poll in Monday's New York Times showed that 61 percent of Americans now say that the government is spending ''too little'' on improving the conditions of black Americans, whereas 35 percent held that view in 1988. And 63 percent now perceive neglect, saying that the federal government is not paying enough attention to the needs and problems of minorities, an opinion expressed by 34 percent of Americans four years ago. That's a remarkable lurch of compassion and wisdom.
Americans want fairness, especially when they see that doing justice is the key to easing their fears and guaranteeing the tranquility that is essential to all forms of progress.
Even in this dismal presidential election campaign, I retain hope that we can find leaders who will show the people a path of cooperation and mutual respect.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.