Boston — Survival in the face of cuts in welfare, food stamps, health care and other social programs is the key to the civil rights movement of the 1980s. So says John E. -Jacob, who will become president of the National Urban League Jan. 1, 1982.
''The realities of the '80s indicate that Americans must perceive civil rights as not solely a black problem, but also as an issue affecting white poor people,'' he said as he talked about the league's future.
''In the so-called glory days (the 1960s) of the movement discrimination and racial bias stared black people in the face - 'white' and 'colored' water fountains, toilets, transportation, eating places, all labeled,'' he said. ''Today the issues are jobs, inadequate housing, poor education, welfare. These are needs that affect even more white poor people than blacks.''
Mr. Jacob's selection to succeed Vernon E. Jordan Jr. as president of the National Urban League indicates a trend toward quiet, less flamboyant, diplomatic leaders among blacks.
''The Urban League operates on four principles - advocacy, direct services, building bridges between the races, and creating an open, pluralistic, integrated society,'' he says. ''I plan to be forceful in seeking these same goals.''
Few people knew of Jacob before 1980 when he suddenly had to fill Mr. Jordan's shoes after Jordan was shot in an assassination attempt in Fort Wayne, Ind. Jordan is resigning as of Dec. 31 after 10 years as league president.
The Urban League board, headed by Coy G. Ecklund, selected Jacob Dec. 7 from among 30 applicants, on the endorsement of a seven-member search committee. He edged out two well-known finalists, Mayor Maynard Jackson of Atlanta and H. Carl McCall of New York, a former member of the United States delegation to the United Nations.
Jacob does not claim the public charisma or clout of Jordan, of other well-known civil rights leaders. He is cast more in the quiet mold of rising black leaders such as M. Carl Holman, director of the National Urban Coalition, and Dr. Joseph E. Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
A veteran of 17 years with the league, Jacob brings a different perspective to the job than his two predecessors. Jacob rose through the ranks. His two predecessors came from outside the league.
Calling on the National Urban League to act, not talk, Jacob says, ''Our duty will be to provide services for poor people, black people, and minority people. This means dealing with survival. The federal government is cutting the programs that helped the underdog - food stamps, welfare, job training, education, health services. It is incumbent on us to deal with these needs.''
Jacob does not plan to rely on the federal government for major help, although 70 percent of the league's special projects have been funded by federal grants. ''We must encourage the private sector to provide such needs as job training and improvement of education for the poor,'' he says.