The curtain is rising on the third great civil rights debate of the 20th century.

Once again the question is: What is the best way for blacks to achieve greater progress in American society, and what kind of leadership do we need?

On two previous occasions this question was raised and answered by black people. At the turn of the century, W. E. B. Dubois led a successful challenge to Booker T. Washington's emphasis on developing manual skills while accepting rigid segregation without challenge. A civil rights strategy of advocacy and pursuing legal remedies was born. And in the late 1950s, of course, new leaders -- King, Farmer, Foreman and Carmichel -- ushered in the protest movement, seeking "Freedom Now."

Once again th stage is set for a great debate. As in the past, it flows out of black Americans' anxiety about their own socioeconomic condition and about the nation's flagging commitment to civil rights.

The dominant issue in today's debate is whether blacks should continue to place heavy emphasis on government action or adopt new strategies that rely less on government and more on personal initiative.

Surely, this is a time for us to be guided by Martin Luther King's wisdom and admonition. He said: "It is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of high maturity, to rise to the level of self-criticism." And he added: "By self-criticism I mean critical thinking about ourselves as a people and the course we have charted or failed to chart."

Rising to the level of self-criticism is an enormous challenge. So, too, is doing some critical thinking about ourselves. In large measure, this is what I think this third great civil rights debate is all about.

There are anxiety and impatience in the black community. In a Joint Center/Gallup poll conducted last year, 61 percent of blacks said they were generally worse off or in about the same shape as they were five years earlier, and 67 percent said they were financially worse off. Seventy- four percent said the pace of civil rights prog slow, and 69 percent said whites want to keep blacks down or don't care about black people at all.

These opinions and perceptions are supported by some grim statistics with which I am sure you are familiar. But none are more devastating than those that document a crisis in black family structure.

During the 1970s, the number of black female-headed families grew by about 98,000 every year. However, between 1980 and 1984 the number grew by 167,000 a year (6,000 more than in the entire white population). More than half of all black children live in these 2.7 million families, and the overwhelming majority of them are living in poverty.

These disastrous trends in black family structure are major barriers to our social and economic advancement, and they severely restrict the life chances of our children.

During the past five years, we have seen more and more calls for blacks to change course, to rely less on government and more on themselves. These calls are coming from several quarters: from the president of the United States, who has led a sustained attack on black leaders, seeking unsuccessfully to discredit and replace them; from a small but vocal group of black conservatives, and from a number of black professionals who believe that regardless of what government does, there is more blacks should do for themselves. And, then, there are some everyday black people who strongly believe that blacks can make it if they try.

I am not suggesting that these people represent the dominant thinking in black America today. Far from it. The civil rights structure is alive and well. However, I do think their numbers are growing, and that, taken together, their voices have formed a chorus that we ignore at great risk. In many ways it is a chorus that is indeed rising to the level of self-criticism.

Perhaps the most conspicuous voices, certainly the loudest, in this chorus are those of self-styled black conservatives. Not only have they sought to undermine civil rights leaders, but they have tried to circumvent them by appealing to blacks to pursue a course of self-help and a commitment to conservative principles.

Who are these reformers, anyway, and what kind of influence do they have? At the core is a small, vocal, diverse group. They include Reagan appointees, such as Clarence Pendleton. They include scholars, such as Tom Sowell, Walter Williams and Glenn Loury -- all economists, if that means anything. And they include some everyday black professionals who are neither conservative ideologues nor Republicans.

They are virtually unknown to most black people. They are very articulate, and while their prescriptions for what ails black America are often vague and simplistic -- self-help, for example -- their ideas contain many of the seductive qualities of Stokely Carmichael's "Black is Beautiful" and Jesse Jackson's "I am Somebody" theme.

To all of this, of course, the civil rights establishment says, "Bah, Humbug." The government and the larger society have a constitutional obligation to assist all Americans, including blacks. And we are right to say this. Moreover, we can point to a tremendous amount of progress that has been achieved since we got the federal government off our backs and on our side. And, yes, in the meantime we have been pursuing self-help as best we could.

But having stated this proper defense, I suspect that deep in our hearts there is a nagging suspicion that we could and should be more self-reliant.

While the reformers might acknowledge that some self-help strategies are being pursued today, they would surely say, "but not enough is being done. There is still too much reliance on government at a time when government cannot or will not respond to blacks' needs."

Harvard University economist Loury certainly makes this point. He says:

"The problems of contemporary Afro-Americans involve at their core the values, attitudes, and behaviors of individual blacks. My concern is that too much of the political energy, talent, and imagination abundant in the emerging black middle class is being channeled into a struggle against the enemy without, while the enemy within goes relatively unchecked."

Another self-help argument was set forth by social psychologist Jeff Howard and Dr. Ray Hammond, both black, in a recent New Republic article. They argue that advancement by blacks is severely hampered by their poor showing in such performance indicators as test scores, grades, professional examinations and job performance ratings. They say that such poor performance is induced by whites who allege that blacks are intellectually inferior and by blacks who are not intellectually competitive.

Blacks can solve this problem, they say, by developing higher levels of expectation and strong positive attitudes toward intellectual competition and by attributing their intellectual success to ability and their failures not to inferiority, but to their own lack of effort.

These self-help prescriptions are long on theory but short on workable ideas on how to accomplish their objectives. Under normal circumstances, this small band of reformers might not be taken very seriously. But this does not appear to be the case. They are getting support for some of their ideas from some important quarters.

They have the Reagan White House as a bully pulpit. Their phenomenal access to mass media is due in part to the novelty of their ideas, but also to the fact that much of what they say, including their attacks on civil rights leaders, finds a sympathetic audience among many whites. Their sustained emphasis on self-help also strikes a responsive chord among many black professionals. This is especially true for those under age 30 who had no direct contact with the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Black conservatives are a small minority among blacks. Their numbers are not likely to grow significantly. But in a real sense, these individuals are not as important as their ideas, some of which contain at least a germ of truth. They do themselves and their ideas a great disservice, however, when they try to out-Reagan-Reagan by claiming that America is now a colorblind society and that affirmative action programs are no longer needed.

The sustained emphasis on self-help strategies has caused blacks to think more critically about themselves and their communities, and this, I think, is very healthy. As a group, we are beginning to have open dialogues about some of the problems we all know exist -- problems that we discuss among ourselves in hushed tones, afraid to let the white folks hear us. And, of course, the white folks already know our little secrets, and they whisper about them. Meanwhile, the problems don't get solved.

Yet another consequence of the emphasis on self-help is that we are reminded that government support for all kinds of things is shrinking, not growing; that the national deficit is a tapeworm sucking out much of the fat of the land; that economic conditions are dictating who gets employed, and that international conditions are dictating where the jobs are located.

And most of these circumstances have nothing to do with race. In this climate are we going to sit quietly and lick our wounds as government, regardless of the reason, neglects its obligations? I think the answer is or ought to be a resounding "No."

I agree with historian John Hope Franklin: "Just as blacks in the 19th century built and supported schools for their own children, so must blacks today move ahead in preserving and promoting what they have. They can build on the great values and traditions of the Afro- American community. . . ."

In this light and challenged by Dr. King's admonition to rise to the level of self-criticism, here are a few of the critical questions that I think we must face and resolve:

Do we who are part of the small but growing black middle class acknowledge our responsibility to sacrifice time and resources to help our brothers and sisters who are less fortunate?

Are we willing to contemplate the idea that black teen-age pregnancy, criminality and poor intellectual performance may be partially the result of some shortcomings on our own part?

How can we advocate a national program for minority enterprise and advocate the survival of historically black colleges and yet fail to support these institutions?

Isn't it odd that we are quick to indict white folks for perpetuating poor education for our children, when it is in fact blacks who are increasingly in charge of the urban education systes where most of our children go to school?

Are we willing to accept the fact that some of our self-help groups -- professional associations, social service agencies, fraternal groups and other institutions -- may have strayed from their original missions?

What good is it to talk about black political power when our voter registration and turnout rates seldom reach a level where we force others to take us seriously?

And, finally, have our advocacy organizations and leaders failed to seek new remedies for persistent problems and new strategies to confront changing circumstances?

We must confront these questions ourselves even as we correctly demand that the government and the business sector produce decent jobs so that we can sustain ourselves economically and maintain our human dignity and even as we demand that the society live up to the promises of the Constitution.