MLK in Camden
William E. Kelly, Jr.
MLK in Camden Revisited – By William E. Kelly [email@example.com (609) 425-6297
Camden, N. J. - Atlanta, Birmingham, Selma and Memphis are all well-known places associated with Martin Luther King and the history of civil rights in America, but few have ever heard of Maple Shade and Camden, until now, as the story is still unfolding.
In June 1950, when young seminary student Michael King signed his name to a legal complaint, - the first such official civil rights action he would take, he listed his legal residence as 753 Walnut Street, Camden, N.J., a few miles away.
Today, more than sixty-five years later, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Camden residence will be saved from demolition, restored and developed into a civil rights museum and community center in one of the city's most blighted neighborhoods.
When car salesman and amateur historian Patrick Duff discovered the building's historic significance, he had a hard time convincing state preservation officers, city historians and even longtime neighbors that Martin Luther King, Jr. lived there, and the building was worth saving, as the state wanted documentation, the city historians were incredulous, and the neighbors didn't remember King walking their streets. The city ordered the building brazed after Duff began to seek the historical designation that would preserve it.
Then Duff got the attention of Camden mayor Dana Redd and powerful political boss Rep. Donald Norcross, both of whom wrote letters to the state department requesting the historical designation. Norcross then got his fellow Congressman Rep. John Lewis (D. Ga.), to support the preservation effort, and all three recently spoke at a press conference in front of the house that hasn't been lived in in twenty years, calling for its preservation.
"This place of historic real estate must be saved for generations unborn," said Lewis, who was in the area to receive the Liberty Medal at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia. "Martin Luther King, Jr. didn't just help change America; he helped change the world."
With these latest developments, the history of the civil rights movement in America and biographies of Martin Luther King, Jr. will have to be rewritten, as new details emerge of MLK's time in Camden clearly indicate it was a crossroads, a turning point in his life, and the civil rights movement in America.
The two years King spent here while attending Crozer Theological Seminary go largely unrecognized in his biographies, but new evidence is continually being discovered that indicates something very special happened here, an event that radicalized King, sparked a fire in his soul, and convinced him to dedicate his ministry to civil rights.
While King's studies at Crozier, in Chester, Pennsylvania are well documented, his residency in Camden had escaped general recognition until recently, as Patrick Duff has discovered the story behind that event, one piece at a time.
In reading back issues of local newspapers while researching another issue, Duff came across an article "The Bar that Started A Crusade," that related how Martin Luther King had filed a legal complaint against a Maple Shade, N.J. bar owner for refusing to serve him and three friends in 1950.
Researching the issue further Duff found other news articles that indicated that was the first time King had taken such legal action, and the event may have played a more significant role in King's life than previously believed, and his hunch has been born out.
Although the roadside cafe bar called Mary's Place, and later known as the Morristown Pub was purchased by the N.J. Department of Transportation and torn down, Duff obtained a copy of the original complaint, signed by King and three companions - fellow Crozer student Walter McCall, social worker Doris Wilson and Pearl Smith, a Philadelphia police women.
What jumped out at Duff was the address King gave as his residence - 753 Walnut Street, Camden, the same address as McCall.
When Duff tracked down the owner of the now boarded up row house, Jeanette Kill Hunt, and asked her if she had any association with Martin Luther King, she replied, "Well he used to live in my house."
She recalled King living there when she was a young girl, saying King and McCall rented a back room from her father, a relative of McCall.
"In those days, anyone was welcome in our house. It had what we called a swinging door. My cousin Walter (McCall) was King's friend, and the two of them lived in the back room upstairs on and off for two years while they were in school."
Duff then went to the Maple Shade city council with a proposal to make the clover leaf location of Mary's Place a public park, and place an historic marker on the spot, highlighting its significance. He also convinced a Morristown architecture firm to design the park pro-bono.
In Camden the owner of the house agreed to allow it to be preserved as a museum, and Duff obtained strong local allies in Father Michael Doyle, whose parish includes the house, and Rutgers Camden Law School, whose attorneys agreed to do the legal end and paperwork. Such a museum and center devoted to King and civil rights, they all agreed, could lead to the redevelopment of the whole neighborhood.
But shortly after a fund was established to restore the house the state notified Duff that they did not consider the site of Mary's Place or the house in Camden to be of historical significance, and to top it off, the owner of the house received a letter from Camden City officials ordering her to demolish the blighted building in the middle of a block of rubble and crack houses.
Undeterred, Duff went back to the archives and discovered the Philadelphia Tribune, the city's venerable black newspaper, had a reporter cover the Maple Shade incident and provided the key elements that could give it historical designation and certify the time here as a life changing crossroads for King and some of the others involved.
THE INCIDENT AT MARY'S PLACE CAFE
In June 1950 Crozer seminary student Michael King had yet to become Martin Luther, Jr. King and was known as Michael King. At the time King and fellow Crozier student Walter McCall were on summer break from Crozer and working as associates of Haverford College professor Ira Reid, the first tenured black faculty member at the Philadelphia college. An Ivy League sociologist, Reid conducted seminars on oral history techniques, and then sent his students out into the field to interview old Baptist ministers in the south. Today there is a student center at Haverford named after Reid.
King's father gave him a black Cadillac when he graduated from Atlanta's Moorehouse school, where King first met Reid and McCall. King graduated early with honors and was accepted into Crozer, a predominately white and well respected school.
It was a Sunday afternoon when King, McCall and their dates Smith and Wilson, went for a drive, destination unknown, but later in the day, around midnight, they pulled off the highway that is now Route 73, and stopped at the roadside cafe known as Mary's Place.
While the identity of Mary has yet to be determined, the cafe and liquor license were then being operated by Ernest Nichols, a big, imposing German immigrant who fought in the German army in World War I.
King and his companions entered and sat down at a table and noticed a few people at the bar, including three college students and possibly a black guy.
After being ignored for a while, King got up and approached the bar, asking for service.
Nichols refused to serve them and when it appeared that King and company were not leaving until they were served, Nichols went into the back room and emerged with a gun, saying, "I'd kill for less than this," and then opened the door and fired the gun in the air, some say more than once.
That was enough to get King and his companions to leave, but they went to the police and filed charges against Nichols.
The police went to the bar, took the weapon from Nichols, apparently got statements from the customers, including three college students at the bar, and arrested Nichols on two charges, one for violating the relatively new and untested civil rights law, and the other was for a weapons violation.
THE CASE IN COURT
The incident was not something King wanted to brag about. Getting thrown out of a bar at gunpoint at midnight on a Sunday was not something King wanted his father to know about. A year earlier when King lived in the school dorm he berated another black student for drinking beer in the dorm as it reflected on all of the other black students, a distinctive minority. Now he was living off campus with McCall, drinking beer, shooting pool and dating, and was in trouble. He would have to appear in court before a judge over somewhat embarrassing circumstances, needed legal help and couldn't call home.
As Lewis said in front of the house, “there's good trouble and bad trouble,” and in this case they were getting into good trouble.
King and McCall contacted the head of the Burlington County NAACP, who referred them to Robert Burke Johnson, a lawyer with the NAACP in Camden. Lloyd Barros, he pastor of Zion Baptist church in Camden also put them in contact with Dr. Ulysses Wiggins, the head of the local branches of the NAACP.
Like King, Dr. Wiggins was originally from Georgia, and was a respected black professional who offered them legal assistance. The NAACP attorney, Robert Burke Johnson, an assistant city prosecutor, represented King and the other complainants at the preliminary hearing in Maple Shade Municipal Court before Judge Percy Charlton.
The first Philadelphia Tribune article appears to have been based on statements King and McCall gave Dr. Wiggins, but the second Tribune account quotes Nichols’ attorney W. Thomas McCann. McCann explained to the judge that Nichols thought King and company wanted take-out liquor, which he was illegal to sell at that hour on Sunday. But as the Tribune article puts it, he was unable to explain Nichols shooting the gun, though Nichols did say that was how he called his dog.
The judge held Nichols on $500 bail.
Nichols had a good attorney in McCann, and the case is mentioned in McCann's obituary.
With Dr. Wiggins, Johnson and the NAACP behind King and McCall and McCann, a noted Morristown attorney defending Nichols, a dramatic court case was shaping up that could have rivaled the Scopes trial and make them all famous, but then the judge dismissed the case. Apparently, the parents of the three college student witnesses put pressure on them and they declined to testify, and others testified that Nichols did serve blacks. So the civil rights charge was dismissed and Nichols pleaded guilty and paid a small fine for the weapons charge.
Other than a few newspaper articles, years apart, and a brief mention of the Maple Shade incident in one of King's biographies, Martin Luther King’s life in Camden went generally unnoticed, even under the radar of longtime residents and local historians, one of whom emphatically declared that, "Martin Luther King never set foot in Camden.” But the story is now well documented, and aspects of it are still emerging, as we learn more about the short but significant time King spent in Camden.
Nichols’ attorney McCann said that he heard King testify before Congress on the radio, and when a Senator asked King what sparked his interest in civil rights, he recalled the incident at Maple Shade. But in those pre-ESPN days, the details are today elusive, as Duff collects the historical documentation necessary to get state recognition and monetary grants.
The support of the politicians also apparently led to the cleanup of Walnut Street, and the clearing of the adjacent vacant lot. "It looks like a different street," said Duff, a bit bewildered at the sudden change in fortune.
Then Republican Thomas Kean, son of the former governor, introduced a bill in the New Jersey State legislature that would ensure the building’s survival and making it a bipartisan issue supported by both parties.
While Maple Shade erects an historic marker and considers a park, Camden begins to figure out how to restore the house and revive the neighborhood, making the MLK house a tourist attraction much like Walt Whitman’s house, not far away, on MLK Boulevard ends at Wiggins Park on the Delaware River waterfront.
As it was pointed out by Camden’s mayor, the street named after King ends at the park named after Dr. Wiggins, just as the lives of Dr. Wiggins and King came together in Camden for that brief but significant time.
Lewis concluded by saying, "I would love to come back here and visit, and see an historic marker at this place and this building restored, and it will be a day of jubilation."
The day of jubilation is getting closer.