When hard times find their way to white America, blacks in this country feel the pain even more.

During the most recent recession, a race of people already suffering from a higher unemployment rate, babies born to unwed mothers, high-school dropouts, crime, drugs and incarceration came under even more pressure. For some, economic gains made during the 1980s and 1990s - whether it was owning a home, starting a business or building a retirement nest egg - were wiped out as the country veered close to tumbling into a depression.

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But blacks struggling to make it at the start of the 21th century can look back and can take pride in, and draw strength from, all the progress made during the last century.

In the South, segregation and Jim Crow laws ruled after the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson. It legalized the doctrine of "separate but equal," but the black side of that divide never received equal treatment. In the North, the separation of the races was not enforced by law, but it was the reality of life in such areas as education, employment and residence.

By the end of World War II and the middle of the 1950s, change began.

Legislative barriers to equal opportunity started to fall with the 1954 Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. The civil rights movement pushed the Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The greatest sign that the country had moved toward the late civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream that people "will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character" was the election of Barack Obama to the presidency in November 2008. His win would have not been possible without the previous gains.

Blacks who lived through the civil rights era or who learned about it from parents are in leadership positions now in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties.

Today's challenges are tough, but blacks holding key positions in southern New Jersey believe two of the most important concepts from earlier times - individual self sufficiency along with communities that promote achievement and discourage bad behavior - should be the guiding lights to lead blacks in America to a better place than they are in now.

Here are the stories of some leaders who are working to improve the lives of others.

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