Before there was Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, there was Hedgepeth and Williams v. Board of Education of Trenton. Before there was Rosa Parks there was Claudette Colvin. The names of Gladys Hedgepeth, Berline Williams and Claudette Colvin are not engraved in the nation’s collective memory in the way that Brown v. Board and Rosa Parks are. But their contributions to the civil rights movement are no less significant—they are simply less famous.
The keynote speaker at this year’s NJEA Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Human and Civil Rights Celebration, Lenworth Gunther, praised the memory of those whose names are not heralded in the civil rights movement. Gunther singled out the women in the history of the civil rights movement, many of whom are barely remembered if their names are recorded at all.
“Dr. King was an icon and he paid the ultimate price, but women were at the heart of the movement,” Gunter said. “Were it not for those women the movement would not have come together and moved as far forward as it did.”
Hedgepeth and Williams sued the Trenton Board of Education for refusing to enroll their children in their neighborhood school. The principal of Junior High No. 2 told them that the school “was not built for negroes.” African-American students were expected to enroll in Trenton’s all-black New Lincoln School. Hedgepeth and Williams’ lawsuit made it to the state Supreme Court in 1944. The court ruled in the students’ favor, making segregation illegal in all New Jersey schools.
The case was cited as a precedent when Thurgood Marshall argued the more famous Brown case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Today, the building once named Junior High No. 2 is now called Hedgepeth-Williams.
On March 2, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat to a white woman. She was arrested. Nine months later, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and became the face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and a national icon. Ultimately, because of concerns that Parks’ legal case would be tied up in Alabama state courts, it was Colvin’s challenge—along with four other African-American women who had refused to give up their seats on Montgomery's buses to white passengers—that made its way into federal court and legally desegregated public transportation.
“Dr. King, and all the men of the movement were great men, but they were the one-fifth of the movement at the tip of the iceberg,” Gunther said. “What sank the Titanic was not the one-fifth of the iceberg that the captain saw above the waterline; it was the four-fifths below the water line.”
Gunther said that the four-fifths below the water line is like the people in the civil rights movement—and in today’s continuing fights for human rights—whose names do not get in the history books, but who nonetheless move history forward. Without them, Gunther said, there would be no movement.
“The names of those who are in the history books are not written in ink,” Gunther proclaimed. “They are written in the blood of the unnamed.”
Gunther reminded his listeners that the fight to protect the gains of the civil rights movement and to move forward in the broader struggle for human rights is our responsibility. As this Review goes to press, the nation is preparing for a new president. Hundreds of NJEA members and tens of thousands of others are heading to Washington, D.C. and to state capitals and cities across the nation to give voice to their outrage over what President Donald Trump says he will do once he occupies the Oval Office. They are protesting in defense of our civil and human rights.
Over the time Trump is president, only a few names of those who protest injustice will be sustained in public consciousness or long remembered. Like Hedgepeth and Colvin, who did not fight for name recognition, but for justice in a cause that they believed in, the vast majority of those who stand up for justice will be among the unnamed four-fifths of the iceberg who sustain the movement.
Most of us will never have a school named after us or find our names listed in a landmark court decision. We will instead be the unnamed people who on a daily basis make the decision to stand up for what we believe in. We’ll attend countless meetings, write hundreds of letters and emails, and make thousands of phone calls. We’ll post calls to action on social media with relentless regularity. We’ll serve as local association building reps or on negotiations teams. We’ll run for down-ballot elective offices. We’ll attend dozens of rallies. We’ll speak up in staff rooms, gatherings of family and friends, and in supermarket checkout aisles.
Much of what you do in the cause of justice on a day-to-day basis will seem insignificant, but it is important that you do it, because without those daily decisions to act—without the four-fifths of us below the waterline—there is no movement.