It could have been a scene from the civil rights marches through Selma or Birmingham in the 1960s: blacks marching arm in arm and chanting "We shall overcome" to protest the killing of a black man by a white sheriff's deputy.

But this was August 1980 in Mathews County Va., the state that many black leaders say was largely untouched by the civil rights struggles of two decades ago. In at least eight communities around the state this year, protests have been launched by blacks against killings, alleged police brutality, job discrimination, harassment and intimidation.

"The civil rights movement passed Virginia by. Driving into this state is like driving from the jet age into the stone age," says Jack Gravely, state director of the NAACP. "Virginia needs to be raped and impregnated with justice and equality."

A survey conducted last month by the American civil liberties Union cited Virginia as "among the worst in the entire South" in the number of blacks and women employed in state and local government jobs.

The most recent figures available from the Statistical Abstract of the United States show Virginia finishing last out of 11 selected southern states in the number of black elected officials in federal, state and local jurisdictions, education, and law enforcement positions.

Yet the ability of the state's understaffed and underfunded NAACP to capitalize on the recent unrest in trying to bring about change remains an open question for the 1980s.

"Unfortunately, what you have in Virginia are a lot of good black folks doing nothing," says the 36-year-old Gravely. "It's tough now."

Claiming a "historical mandate" as the traditional statewide organization to fight for the civil rights of Virginia's nearly 800,000 blacks (one-fifth of the state's population), the NAACP's membership grew by 8,500 in 1979 (to about 25,000). Yet more than 10 percent of its 104 local branches are inactive.

And though the Virginia-born Gravely was at the head of last month's 11-mile march by 200 to 300 blacks protesting the shooting of a 23-year-old highway department laborer in Mathews, his organization risks falling behind the action elsewhere.

In July, when a Virginia judge in Manassas threatened to sentence a young black man to 240 years in prison for a series of 12 burglaries, Prince William County blacks were enraged. The judge later relented, imposing only a 10-year prison term in a courtroom packed with the defendant's supporters.

As relieved blacks crowded around the defendant's mother after the sentencing, the 70-year-old head of the county NAACP, the Rev. Commodore Nathaniel Bennett, strode across the room to shake hands with the white prosecutor.

The Rev. John Blackmon, local NAACP executive assistant, defends the action, saying the fight for civil rights is "no longer in the streets. We negotiate in the offices and the backrooms. It's no longer a street matter, but a suite matter."

But to other Prince William blacks, such fraternizing with the white power structure is but another sign that the local NAACP is ineffective, or worse.

Soon after last month's sentencing, a splinter civil rights group called "Women for Equal Social Justice" sprang up in the county. It was formed, says cofounder Nellie McLeod, because "blacks were going to the NAACP for help and they were doing nothing."

Gravely calls the situation in Prince William County "a classic example of philosophical infighting" between old established blacks and younger activists that is hampering progress in some NAACP chapters.

Although he clearly prefers for blacks to work together, Gravely acknowledged that the "conservative black leadership" in certain parts of the state "reach up and touch the ceiling when it's time to reach out and touch the sky."

"When the NAACP is not doing what it is supposed to do, it is up to the community to it . . . on the streets, on the pulpit, and in the pool halls," Gravely said.

In the view of NAACP and ACLU officials, much of the poor showing by Virginia blacks in civil rights can be blamed on the traditions of a state that is one of the most conservative in the South.

"In the Virginia General Assembly, 80 percent of the House districts are multimember, making it extremely difficult for blacks to get elected." says ACLU lobbyist Judy Goldberg.

"Even in the Southside belt of the state where blacks are 45 to 50 percent of the population, the voting districts seem to have been designed to prevent blacks from getting elected."

While black college students were joined by northern volunteers to effect change elsewhere in the South in the '60s, "That just didn't happen in Virginia, where you only had five black colleges," Gravely says.

He believes that the lack of powerful labor unions in Virginia also served to deny blacks a traditional source of trained leadership.

"Virginia is and always has been a right-to-work state," Gravely says. "It is a system that has sought to keep labor in its place. Those labor unions and those colleges produced -- in other states -- a trained cadre of people who could assume leadership roles."

As a result, according to statistics from the Joint Center for Political Studies in Washington, Virginia has only 88 elected black officials in the entire state, in contast to states like North Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, and South Carolina which have, respectively: 240, 327, 334, and 222 elected blacks.

Ironically, in 1968 -- the most volatile year of the nation's civil rights movement -- Virginia had more black elected officials than any other southern state, according to L. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond), Virginia's only black state senator.

"That was the year when there were no black elected officials in Alabama, North Carolina, Florida . . . We became too satisfied, too soon, with too little," Wilder said in a telephone interview yesterday.

"Blacks in this state had been chloroformed into believing, that we were better off than those poor suffering blacks' in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida," Wilder continued. "There just hasn't been that groundswell of the black movement in Virginia."

Gravely agrees. "Traditionally," he says, "blacks in Virginia have had just enough to keep them thinking that they weren't being treated badly, but not enough so that they knew what real equality was."