SURRY, VA. -- "There was a time when black people were ashamed to say they lived in Surry County," C. C. Pettaway recalls. "We used to call it 'Sorry County.' Now the average person is walking with his head up. This thing has really made a difference."

"This thing" is the Surry County Assembly, a citizen forum launched here in 1967, when blacks in this rural backwater fought vainly against a local government that gave them segregated schools, grudging handouts and insults when they sought the assistance the law promised them.

The local government is no longer the enemy. Four of the five members of the Board of County Supervisors are black, as are the commonwealth's attorney, the county treasurer, the county administrator, the superintendent of schools, the director of planning and eight of the 11 planning commissioners.

Schoolchildren -- including white children who, earlier, had fled to segregated "academies" -- are achieving as never before. The high school marching band and choir have won regional awards, and the football team, which hadn't won a game before 1977, went 7 and 2 that year and followed that success with a Tidewater championship trophy.

M. Sherlock Holmes, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, says 95 percent of the change is due to a new sense of pride brought on by the assembly.

"We had run several people for office in the late '60s, and each time we'd get close. Once we lost by just 36 votes, but we'd still lose," says the 65-year-old Pettaway, first president of the assembly. "The people were just about to give up. Then somebody I knew from CORE {the Congress of Racial Equality} told me we ought to meet with this man Don Anderson in Petersburg, so we drove over there. He didn't make a bit of sense to me, but he sat us down and explained it, over and over again. We had a lot of questions, but we didn't even know how to phrase the questions. But it sounded good, so we bought it."

What they bought was an idea that Anderson, a former congressional general counsel working on antipoverty issues, had been developing since his postgraduate years at the London School of Economics. The assembly includes notions espoused by Thomas Jefferson and an organizational scheme inspired by the British House of Commons. It represents grass-roots democracy of a sort rarely attempted here.

"I had been working with Adam Clayton Powell on the War on Poverty, and I wasn't satisfied with the way things were going," Anderson explained. "It appeared to me that I could accomplish what they were failing to accomplish through the Community Action Programs, whose representatives were really representatives of only a fraction of the community. I thought if we could organize an entire community -- a rural county or city -- people would be able to take initiatives on their own; genuine self-help."

Anderson, whose National Association for the Southern Poor has offices in Washington and Durham, N.C., scrounged money from foundations and private donors and, 20 years ago next February, started putting his idea into practice.

Since then, he has launched assemblies in Portsmouth, Va., in 22 rural North Carolina counties and in 15 more in Virginia, including Surry.

"The trouble," says Pettaway, explaining earlier failure, "was that the county is spread out so big that you couldn't get people to come from, like, Blackwater down to Bacon's Castle or the Claremont people to come to the town of Surry for a meeting.

"The way Anderson taught us to do it was to organize each little hamlet into conferences of 50 people each. The conference representatives keep in touch with their people through seven committeemen, and at the same time represent them in the assembly, which meets the first Tuesday in every month. That's what brought Surry together. Our voter registration has been as high as 90 percent."

Which is precisely what Anderson had in mind.

Each assembly may boast of its specific program successes -- a $3 million housing project for the elderly poor in Prince Edward County, Va., a medical clinic in Gates County, N.C., or a job training program for the hard-core jobless in Portsmouth -- but it is the organizational scheme that makes the programs possible.

"Most antipoverty efforts start with programs," Anderson explains. "But while that approach may achieve some limited results, the net effect is that it disables the people you are trying to help. If you start with a program, you take the initiative away from the poor and make them dependent on whoever brings in the program from the outside.

"But if you help people to organize on a community-wide basis, they can set their own priorities and develop the programs that make sense to them."

It has happened so successfully in Surry that the local assembly is now reduced largely to a watchdog role, according to the current president, Thomas Hardy. "We organized to solve our problems, and we just don't have that many problems now," he said. "Our people are running things, so most of the time the problems get solved before the assembly even hears about them."