WASHINGTON (AP) _ Attorney General Dick Thornburgh on Friday recommended William Lucas, a black lawyer and former Michigan gubernatorial candidate, to head the Justice Department's civil rights division.

Lucas, a Democrat-turned-Republican from Detroit, ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1986. He is also a former New York City policeman, FBI agent, Wayne County, Mich., sheriff and Wayne County executive.

He worked briefly for the civil rights division in the early 1960s, representing the Justice Department in Tuskegee, Ala., during the desegregation of local schools, the department said. In addition, he helped compile information on barriers to black voting, material presented to Congress during its consideration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He is currently a lawyer in private practice in Detroit.

Civil rights advocates criticized the selection, saying Lucas lacks experience in enforcement of civil rights laws, while conservatives applauded the choice.

If nominated by President Bush and confirmed by the Senate, Lucas, 61, would be the second black to hold the job. The first was Drew S. Days III during the Carter administration.

''Bill Lucas has a long-standing commitment to the civil rights movement and a record of strong and fair law enforcement,'' Thornburgh said in a statement regarding his recommendation of Lucas for the job of assistant attorney general in charge of civil rights.

''These factors, I believe, make him an outstanding nominee for the sensitive position of ensuring that the civil rights laws of our nation are equally and fairly enforced,'' Thornburgh said.

Bush has said he wants civil rights policy to be different from that followed by former President Reagan, whose civil rights division came under intense fire from civil rights groups.

William Bradford Reynolds, who headed the civil rights division during the Reagan administration, helped formulate and direct the Reagan administration's efforts challenging affirmative action hiring quotas. He also moved to overturn court-ordered busing programs and to restrict federal guarantees concerning women's rights and the rights of the mentally ill and disabled.

Civil rights advocates on Friday criticized Thornburgh's selection of Lucas.

''We're terribly disappointed,'' said Julius Chambers, the director-counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Legal Defense Fund.

''We had hoped that the attorney general ... would try to pick someone who had some experience with civil rights litigation and had some sympathy and appreciation for the struggle that black people have been going through over the years, and that we would not be back with the same type of confrontation that we've had during the past eight years,'' Chambers said.

Ralph Neas of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights said, ''This is the latest in a series of decisions by the attorney general that has caused apprehension in the civil rights community regarding the readiness of this administration to vigorously and fully enforce the civil rights laws.''

William Taylor of the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights said Lucas ''appears to have a little bit of civil rights experience, but it seems to go back a long way, before the enactment of major civil rights laws. He doesn't have major identification among civil rights leaders and organizations as someone with a real background in civil rights.''

''I think there were a lot of people who could have been chosen who would have brought more experience and credentials,'' he said.

The fact that Lucas is black did not allay any of Taylor's concerns.

''We're past the era, I think, when an administration earns plaudits simply by appointing a minority person to a job,'' Taylor said. ''This is such a key job that it's important that the person be knowledgeable, skilled, experienced and committed to enforcement of civil rights. That would go for any nominee, black or white, any race, religion or background.''

However, Pat Korten, a conservative who served as Justice Department spokesman during the Reagan administration, said the selection was ''not only a good choice, but it's politically very smart.''

''I think it will please conservatives who have long thought highly of Lucas and thought of him as someone who should be given a role of some prominence in a Republican administration and somebody who can symbolize the party's desire to bring into its fold blacks with a strong law-and-order record,'' he said.

The reaction from Patrick McGuigan of the Free Congress Foundation, a strongly conservative group, also was positive.

''This is a brilliant appointment,'' he said. ''Some surprises are pleasant. Bill Lucas is a principled, honest public servant.''

Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, who met with Thornburgh last month, said at that time, ''In some sense, for the first time in eight years the lights have been turned back on in the Justice Department.'' He was not immediately available for comment on Lucas.

A spokeswoman at Jackson's Chicago office said she did not know if Lucas had been on a list of candidates for the job that Thornburgh had asked Jackson to submit.