''It only matters when you help somebody.'' So said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. nearly 20 years ago in his famed ''I have a dream'' speech, the dramatic climax to the massive Aug. 28, 1963, ''March on Washington.''
Inspired by this address, civil rights workers spread through the South, marching in the streets, braving fire hoses, hostile police, and white terrorists. Their goal was to replace racial segregation and discrimination with equal rights and opportunity for all, regardless of color. The result: passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
As the 54th anniversary of Dr. King's birth approaches (Jan. 15), the nation's black leaders say they are dissatisfied with what they term the conservative mood of the nation. Despite President Reagan's personal statements favoring civil rights, they say there has been little action to back up those words.
''The campaign which began in the '60s must be accelerated,'' says Dr. Joseph E. Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) founded by Dr. King in 1957. ''The Reagan administration is waging a brutal assault on our civil rights gains. And this assault reflects the mood of the country. And the American people are supporting the actions of the administration.''
Civil rights leaders say the days of overt racial discrimination are past. But what they term ''covert bias'' is subtly sprouting around the nation, they add. And they express apprehension in the rise of the Ku Klux Klan as a more sophisticated force, especially outside the South.
Dr. Lowery, chairman of the Black Leadership Forum, says three key issues must still be resolved: economic justice, political justice, and criminal justice.
Black leaders are planning a campaign to rekindle the verve in the civil rights movement that seems to have faded since Dr. King's assassination in 1968.
Part of the campaign involves a renewed effort to make King's birthday a national holiday. Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan and Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R) of Maryland have introduced legislation to make King Day a holiday, although its chances of passage are uncertain. Three years ago the Congressional Black Caucus blocked a bill to make King's birthday a national holiday because it would have limited observances to Sunday.
Congress recognized Dr. King last month by approving the creation of a memorial to Dr. King in the Capitol, the first for a black in the nation's history.
Eighteen states, the District of Columbia, and most of the nation's larger cities have made Jan. 15 a legal holiday, most of them excusing governmental employees and school children for the day.
Perhaps more dramatic is a plan to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 1963 civil rights March on Washington by holding a new march this August. Key target of the 1983 march will be the Reagan administration and its policies. Civil rights leaders decry the administration's willingness to permit tax exempt status for private schools that refuse to admit black stu-el20ldents and the administration's opposition to court-ordered busing to desegregate public schools.
They also object to the US Justice Department's interceding in affirmative action cases involving police and fire fighters in Boston and New Orleans. The New Orleans case involves a court-ordered agreement dealing with the promotion of minorities on the police department. In Boston, a federal court has mandated that when lay-offs occur on the police and fire departments, the racial balance on the force must be maintained.
''The Justice Department is going out of its way to turn the clock back,'' says Lowery. ''Look at New Orleans and Boston. The Justice Department wants to fight decisions already made. This keeps us from gaining racial equity. This is devastating.''
The style of the men who led the 1963 march - Dr. King, Whitney M. Young Jr. of the National Urban League, and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP (all deceased), and James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) - is no longer the major approach of today's leaders. Today's new voices are more collective through the Black Leadership Conference, headed by Lowery, through black political caucuses of congressmen, mayors, legislators, and local officials rather than that of strong individuals such as Dr. King or Malcolm X.
Black organizations rely to a limited extent on white support. They also have received backing from the US Civil Rights Commission. Now headed by Reagan appointee Charles Pendleton, the commission praised the President Jan. 11 for his statements against racial bias. But it also asked him to back his words with action. ''There has been been retrenchment and retreat by this administration in all areas of civil rights,'' said Mary Frances Berry, appointed by President Carter.
In the private sector, the nation's major civil rights organizations - the NAACP, National Urban League, Operation PUSH - advocate affirmative action and more business for black entrepreneurs. PUSH urges boycotts when major firms refuse to deal with blacks on these issues. Its latest action calls for workers, black and white, to take one hour off from their jobs on April 14 as a protest against high unemployment.
SCLC is reviving Operation Breadbasket, which gave the Rev. Mr. Jackson clout in Chicago in the 1960s, to encourage food stores to deal with black vendors.
The NAACP is running a ''fair share'' policy which has netted agreement with the nation's utility organizations and two movie companies.
''Criminal justice is vital because we still have police brutality - they have caused eruptions in Miami and other ghetto communities,'' Lowery says. ''We need more black and minority judges, law enforcement officials, lawyers.''