They stood up, even if it meant retribution. Meet NJ's civil rights activists and pioneers
Some marched on Washington, D.C., with Martin Luther King Jr. demanding equal rights for all. Others fought their own battles in New Jersey. They demanded racial equality in schools, housing, voting rights and public transportation. They stood up, even if it meant retribution, arrest and abuse.
For Black History Month, NorthJersey.com and The USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey compiled interviews with civil rights pioneers with connections to the Garden State, past and present, to discuss their contributions to American history. These are their stories.
Lee Porter: Fair housing champion
Lee Porter 91, executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Northern NJ remembers the passage of the Fair Housing Act 50 years ago. NorthJersey.com
Lee Porter has seen the impact that housing discrimination can have on families in New Jersey, and how it has evolved since she started as a volunteer helping minorities, most of them African American, find homes.
In the 1960s and 1970s, she said, discrimination was blatant and based mostly on race. Today, it remains widespread, but it takes more subtle forms, such as real estate agents showing fewer properties and apartments to people of color than to whites.
“We thought we were going to win this battle fast," Porter said. "It's happening, but not fast enough.’’
Theodora Lacey: School desegregation pioneer
Theodora Lacey, a pioneer in the movement for racial equality, talks about her involvement in civil rights & how she brought the fight to New Jersey. NorthJersey
When Theodora Smiley Lacey and her husband, Archie, came north from Louisiana in the late 1950s, they left behind the institutionalized racism of the Deep South. But their greeting when they moved from Manhattan to Teaneck in 1961 was not exactly warm. Some neighbors moved out after they moved in, and some resisted the idea of black and white children learning side by side in local public schools.
They were not discouraged by what they encountered in Teaneck, and instead decided to push for change. The Laceys were part of a group that fought discriminatory housing practices and also banded together with like-minded Teaneck residents and educators to desegregate the township's schools. They succeeded, with the school district becoming the first in the nation to integrate without a court order.
"Sometimes I feel guilty about the joy that it brings me when things are accomplished that I had the opportunity to be present in," said Lacey. "I have not achieved any greatness in terms of when you look at the world and all the great people who have lived in it, but I've been happy to be on the side of what I think is good and right."
Nathaniel Briggs: Activism in his blood
Nathaniel Briggs discusses his parents involvement in Briggs v Elliott and their struggle to fight for civil rights. NorthJersey.com
Nathaniel Briggs was only a toddler when his parents, Harry and Eliza Briggs, signed their names on a petition demanding a school bus for black children in Clarendon County, South Carolina, who had to walk up to 6 miles to attend classes.
"The children in the community didn't have school buses and didn't have equal access to education,'' Nathaniel Briggs, now a Teaneck resident, said recently. "For hundreds of years these schools were never equal."
The Briggs along with others sued the school district, and their complaint was combined with cases from other states in what became known as Brown v. Board of Education. The case led to a seminal U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1954 that separate educational facilities were "inherently unequal" and paved the way for an end to state-sanctioned racial segregation in public schools.
The Briggs' fight came with a cost, though. As they waited for the court decision, and later for the ruling to be implemented, Harry Briggs lost his job at a local gas station and his wife her position as a motel maid. Harry Briggs moved to Florida in 1957 and later moved his family to New York for work.
"There is a price to pay when you go up against the system, especially in the South, where they controlled the bank, the school board, they controlled the finances... If you had a car and your name was on that petition, they immediately called your loan,'' Nathaniel Briggs said.
"Here you are in the civil rights struggle, you don't have money, nobody is writing you a check, food needs to be on the table. So we moved to Miami poor,'' he added. "We moved to Miami with the clothes on our backs on a Greyhound bus looking for new opportunities."
Those struggles didn't stop Nathaniel Briggs, who is now 72, from becoming an activist as an adult. He led the Bergen County chapter of the NAACP for several years and continues to be involved with the civil rights organization.
Israel Dresner: Freedom Rider
NJ Rabbi recalls civil rights era alliance with Martin Luther King, Jr. (Orig. published on Sept. 20, 2010.) NorthJersey.com
It was a hot day in 1962 when Rabbi Israel Dresner arrived in Albany, Georgia, on a Greyhound bus as a member of the Freedom Riders. He and other civil rights clergy were due to meet Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and aid in protesting racial segregation in the South.
“The next four days I spent around the clock with Dr. King,” Dresner remembered in an interview.
The trip included speeches at small black churches, some vandalized by the Klu Klux Klan, Dresner said. King and the Freedom Riders met resistance from law enforcement and were called “outside agitators” by passing crowds.
The rabbi's work in that period has won him several accolades, including an honor by then-President Barack Obama at the White House in 2013, on the 50th anniversary of King's March on Washington.
Horace 'Mickey' Buggs: Garfield Colored Giants assistant manager
Horace "Mickey" Buggs, 87, was an assistant with the Garfield Colored Giants, a semi-professional baseball team. He was with the team from 1946-1947. NorthJersey.com
The Garfield Colored Giants were a force to be reckoned with on the baseball diamond, fielding segregated teams in an integrated league and winning a number of North Jersey National League semi-pro baseball championships, Horace "Mickey" Buggs recalls.
The team was established in the 1930s, and Buggs was its assistant manager in 1946 and 1947.
Players of note included John Logan, a shortstop who later founded the Garfield branch of the NAACP and was posthumously honored when a portion of Malcolm Avenue was named John Pierce Logan Way.
The Laval brothers: WWII veterans
Rutherford posthumously honored six brothers who served in WWII. The Laval's were the only African American family to send 6 brothers to the war. NorthJersey.com
Historian Rod Leith referred to the Laval brothers — Mark, Ernest, John, Leon, Albert and Moses — as typical veterans. When the six returned home to Rutherford after serving in World War II, there was little fanfare. No plaques, no ceremonies.
“These sons were not lackluster soldiers,” though, he added. “They were right in the row of things.” This was especially true of John, who received the Purple Heart for his service in Italy.
However, the family faced adversity because of their skin color while in the armed forces. Albert had hopes of being trained as a seaman, but his first assignment was with the construction battalion. Leith, who interviewed Albert shortly before his death, recalled the veteran said, “The Navy didn’t want blacks aboard a ship unless it was in the kitchen.”
A dedicated sailor, he was eventually promoted to the rank of coxswain and was put in charge of his own boat.
Arnold Brown: Historian and activist
Nearly two centuries later, Brown bought a home on Knickerbocker Road in Englewood. He had to sneak inside and tour the home after nightfall so his white neighbors wouldn’t see.
Almost 50 years later, Brown still lives in the same house, three blocks from Dwight Morrow High School. Officially, the school desegregated in 1961, along with the rest of Englewood's public schools, after a campaign that Brown helped to lead.
Bergen County officials honored Brown in 2018 for his lifetime of work to unearth and preserve the history of African Americans in North Jersey. He has written histories of prominent black businesswomen and newspaper publishers, helped to save a forgotten African American cemetery in Little Ferry and pushed for a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. on the banks of the Hackensack River.
It’s been 227 years since James Oliver was born, and many white people in Bergen County still haven’t learned how to live together with black people in Bergen County, Brown said.
“Erasing segregation and racism is a long, long journey,” he said. “Several lifetimes.”
Austin Powlis: Decorated WWII veteran
Austin Powlis, a 92 years old decorated WWII vet, was part of the Red Ball Express, a battalion of mostly African-American truck drivers who risked their lives delivering supplies. NorthJersey.com
When Austin Powlis, of Teaneck, landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day in 1944, the leaflets, instead of bullets, is what he recalled most.
As a member of the 3902 Quartermaster Company, 16th Army Division, he said leaflets were dropped down as the soldiers went into combat. The leaflets were likely notifications to local residents as well as German soldiers to surrender peacefully in exchange for lenient treatment in the POW camps.
Powlis was also for a time a rifleman and truck driver in the Red Ball Express, a legendary convoy created by Allied forces to supply their troops in Europe with food, ammunition, gasoline and other items during World War II. Around 75 percent of the drivers in the Red Ball Express were black but unable to serve on the frontlines because of racial discrimination.
Powlis died at age 92 in 2017.
Staff writers Tom Nobile, Kelly Nicholaides, Nicholas Katzban, Christopher Maag and Jim Beckerman contributed to this article.