For Blacks, the Terror Is Gone, but Next Steps Wait A Writer Who Covered the Civil Rights Movement in King's Time Worries That Much of the Momentum for Social Justice Has Been Lost amid National Handwringing over Our Problems. MARTIN LUTHER KING DAY

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ONCE again, as America officially (and, in some cases, grudgingly) acknowledges the debt it owes to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we stop to think about what we have and haven't learned from the years of the civil rights movement. Next month we'll get another crack at it, as libraries, school bureaucracies, and public television unpack their annual observance of Black History Month - our shortest one, as many a cynic has observed.

Cynicism is very much in order these days. There are times when the only rational conclusion can be that our collective conscience has not only learned nothing but actually has regressed from that amazing era that started with the Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation decision and ended with the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march. Consider just a few items from our national inventory of despair:

* Young black men helped form the backbone of the '60s movement in the South. Now it is commonplace to refer to young black men as an endangered species. The government recently released figures showing that in 1989 the death rate for young blacks was 238 percent higher than for young whites. AIDS and homicide are prime reasons. Experimental schools are proposed just to keep black males alive long enough to escape to adulthood.

* The civil rights movement was a time of invigorating hope, much of it brought on by the skillful guidance of the movement by people such as Dr. King. That hope was nourished by sweaty mass meetings in Southern black churches; by the attentiveness and general support of a nationwide audience; by at least promises of help from Washington; by the depraved and stupid nature of the opposition, and by a steady string of hard-fought victories.

Where is that hope now? It is gone the way of most of our hopefulness these sad, gray days, lost in the mire of our perceived inability to do anything to improve our own lot. We treat most of our problems now as insoluble. Political insensitivity and corruption stretch from our national housing agency to our neighborhood savings and loan to the halls (and restaurants) of Congress.

The debate over abortion (if a public melee can be called a debate) seems unending, as does our sometimes justified hysteria over illegal drugs.

In a few short years we have replaced what was a worthy national goal, equality in the workplace, with ceaseless whining about "quotas." When our big cities decline enough, white America abandons them to black leadership, handing over the keys to ruined infrastructure and squandered treasuries.

* The movement drew much of its strength from concerned white Americans, many of whom gave their time and money, some their lives. …