By Hettie V. Williams
New Jersey’s black professional class was uniquely positioned to exact collective changes in civil rights, at the state level, that were far greater than the reforms gained in any other state at the time. In other words, the black elite and professional class in New Jersey constituted a distinctly positioned local vanguard of civil rights reform from the Progressive Era to the emergence of the mass movement for civil rights in 1954. This is represented in the historic concessions secured in civil rights reform at the state level during the early black freedom struggle in New Jersey during a long Civil Rights Movement (CRM). These men and women who led the CRM in New Jersey included Otto Hill, a medical doctor from northern New Jersey, Marion Thompson Wright, a historian who taught at Howard University, businesswoman Sara Spencer Washington, and NAACP lawyer Robert Queen. Black activists in New Jersey were leading the way to national civil rights reform before the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. This argument challenges the more popular 1954 to 1968 narrative of the CRM that places a focus on southern states as the center of the struggle for black freedom.
New Jersey was a state pivotal to the development of national civil rights campaigns orchestrated by African Americans. This story has never been told. While Washington used her wealth to integrate the Atlantic City beaches, Wright helped to wage a war against segregation in the public-school system. Wright’s doctoral dissertation on the history of African Americans and education in New Jersey, published in 1943 by Columbia University, in many respects, served as the basis for the attack against school segregation in the Garden State and nationwide.
In 1944, the New Jersey Supreme Court declared that “it is illegal to deny any student” access to any public school on the basis of race in the case of Hedgepeth and Williams v. Trenton Board of Education. McQueen was the lawyer for the plaintiffs in this case. This case was settled a decade before the Brown decision. NAACP lawyers later cited the Hedgepeth and Williams case as a precedent in their legal brief for Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. This was the first legal precedent in any state during the twentieth century to explicitly call for an end to the practice of school segregation before the Brown decision. In 1948, the New Jersey state legislature also enacted laws to protect the jobs of black school teachers by forbidding the dismissal of any teacher in New Jersey on the basis of race; and, the number of black teachers in the state subsequently increased nearly 75 percent by the year 1954.
NAACP operatives utilized New Jersey as a testing ground to gain support from black professionals concerning desegregation in the Garden State and beyond. Governor Alfred Driscoll took aggressive action by ordering the Division Against Discrimination to cut off funding to school districts that continued to engage in blatant segregation. The Urban Colored Population Commission (1941–1945) created in New Jersey to investigate racial discrimination and the cause of racial tension in the state at the urging of black activists was a precursor to the Kerner Commission later organized in 1967 by President Lyndon B. Johnson in response to the urban rebellions that were taking place across the nation.
New Jersey’s state legislature passed a Fair Employment Practices Act in 1945 that prohibited racial discrimination in employment and a Division Against Discrimination was created to administer the act (this was one of the first state agencies developed to eliminate racial and ethnic discrimination). This law was authored by Otto Hill as a member of the state legislature. The New Jersey FEPC was only the second of such laws passed in the nation. New Jersey’s third state Constitution in 1947 included an equal rights clause, outlawed school segregation and a provision that required the integration of the state National Guard. President Harry S. Truman’s integration of the U.S. armed forces through Executive Order 9981 was not issued until 1948.
In 1949, Civil Rights laws in New Jersey were passed that prohibited racial discrimination in public accommodations and public housing. The New Jersey Civil Rights Act of 1949 served as a model for the federal Civil Rights Act passed into law in 1964. New Jersey as a case study provides an example of local agency in a northern state that was taking place in various parts of the country that scholars have come to embrace as part of a tradition of mass movement by local people not just a movement directed by the more recognizable figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. It was the work of local people in this northern state through both community and national organizations that formed the strategic foundation of resistance that became the basis for a larger national civil rights platform.