THE REV. JESSE JACKSON held out his hand. He reached toward the students in the auditorium of the District's Dunbar High School. People were lined against the wall to hear him speak. Mr. Jackson was recently returned from the Middle East and from nightly appearances on TV shows -- to do what he does best. Some of the students had seen him on the "Lou Grant" television show doing his "I am somebody" routine before a similar high school audience. Others had seen him at one of the dozens of graduations and special assemblies he has addressed. In the back of the room, some of the boys were mumbling, "Same old, same old Jesse," as Mr. Jackson began his speech with hil well-known country-preacher chants. "Down with dope, up with hope!" he shouted. "Down with hope, up with doep!" a youngster yelled back.

Then he began to say some new things. "Every generation has its challenges . . . . Mayor Barry, Congressman Fauntroy, they were great because the served their generation . . . . " Mr. Jackson's hand hit the lectern. There was no mumbling now. In 1964 in Birmingham, Ala., he said, dogs held by city policemen attacked black people demonstrating for their civil rights. But today, 16 years later, he continued, a black man, Richard Arrington, is mayor of Birmingham and in charge of the police department. That great stride in progress for blacks in Birmingham, Jackson said, was accomplished by a generation that used its anger to make social gains. And then: "This generation's challenge is to use the right [black people] have won . . . and not to watch five hours of TV a night."

Mr. Jackson brought the challenge home, to the District. He told the young, almost all black Dunbar student audience that whites are moving back to the city, often buying land that once belonged to blacks. He said black youth have to strive to stay in the city, both in terms of land and as an educated political force. To meet the challenge facing this generation, he said, today's teen-agers will have to take advantage of schools and the right to vote.

The statement couldn't have been more timely or more poignant. Just this month fewer than 15 percent of the city's voters bothered to vote in the school board election. Only 30 percent took the time to choose a mayor last year. In the years since District residents won the right to vote, the struggles that were fought to get the vote seem to have lost their meaning for some.

School statistics aren't much brighter. Scores on standardized national tests show that District students are more than a hundred points behind the national average. And at the same time the D.C. school system's absentee rate is 13.9 per -- more than double the national average and second only to the racially torn Boston school system. In District high school, such as Dunbar, the absentee rate has been over 20 percent for the past five years. Last year it was 21.3 percent. You will hear a lot of analysis of all this and a lot of proposed remedies that generate political (and racial) quarreling, blaming, scapegoating and the rest. That is why Mr. Jackson's arguments and emphasis are so important -- so right. He is to be applauded for putting the problem of apathetic black students and apathetic black voters before young people. It is, essentially, an upbeat message. "There is nothing so wrong with our teachers, our school and our minds that we can't learn if we want to," Mr. Jacksons said. Amen.