America's civil rights leadership, with ample justification, has laid heavy stress on two things: racism as the overwhelming source of problems for blacks, and government programs as the crucial remedy.

Racism still abounds, and, despite the Reagan administration's hostility to federally run "social" programs, government help continues to be necessary.

But when you're stuck with limited resources, as black America clearly is, it makes sense to think about priorities. The case can be made that, despite the problems confronting black Americans across the board, the No. 1 priority should be: the children.

This is so not only because upwardly mobile groups always look to their children as their way up but also because black America's children are in particular trouble. The Labor Department reported recently that while unemployment declined slightly in June, the number of jobless blacks held steady. The unemployment rate for black teen-agers jumped from 48.2 percent to 50.6 percent.

Nor is it just the older, job-seeking children who are in trouble. Many of those still in school aren't doing very well, and even those who earn relatively good grades may be learning less than those grades suggest. Montgomery County parents were shocked over recent reports that 35 percent of the county's ninth graders had failed the soon-to-be-mandatory math competency exam. But there was special shock for black parents when a subsequent analysis revealed that more than two-thirds of the black ninth graders had failed.

Significantly, only 10 black students were enrolled in the toughest of the five math courses the county offers. More than 60 percent were in the two easiest courses. What that means is that many black students will find themselves unprepared for courses that lead to jobs in computer science and other math-related technology.

It suggests, too, that a quarter-century's emphasis on school desegregation may have distracted us from the necessity of seeing to it that our children were getting a good education, not just a racially integrated one.

The civil rights leadership, having cut its teeth struggling (successfully) against the external enemies of black progress, is having trouble adjusting to the present necessity of fighting the internal ones. When the battle was against official racism--whites-only schools, parks, lunch counters and voting booths--the federal government was an indispensable ally.

The government still can be of enormous help; but we must decide just what it is we want the government to help us achieve. And even if that help is forthcoming, there is a great deal we will have to do for ourselves.

The government cannot insist that we get our children to take more than the minimum math requirements, or persuade them to delay sexual activity until they are emotionally and economically mature enough to handle its consequences. The government cannot do much about the dismal fact that half our babies are born out of wedlock, with all the socioeconomic problems that that entails.

The 1960s movement succeeded in opening the doors of opportunity. The laws against discrimination in employment, in education, in opportunity of all sorts, have given us a much-improved foundation on which to build. Rearing the structure is largely up to us.

And it is individual. Legislating nondiscriminatory opportunity, we are learning, cannot ensure racial progress. The law can desegregate the gym, but individual kids have to be persuaded to train.

Maybe the civil rights leadership, as currently constituted, cannot do that. But for the sake of black people and for the security of America, somebody had better start trying.