Wednesday, June 10, 2015

June 10 - 12 Historic Events Commemorated

June 10 - June 12 Historic Events Commemorated - Bill Kelly

June 10th and June 12 don't ring many bells as special dates to remember, or days that will live in infamy, but a few people think them worth commemorating at the places where some significant events took place - JFK's "Peace Speech" at American University and Mary's Cafe in Maple Shade, New Jersey, where MLK was radicalized to make civil rights the focus of his ministry.

It was June 10th 1963 when JFK delivered one of the most I'm portent speeches at the American University graduation commencement ceremony, an outdoor affair with the stage set up at the far west end of the football field, where an historic marker is located today.

JFK chose the time and place to make a major foreign policy speech - "A Strategy of Peace" that would be intensely studied by the Soviets and practically ignored by most Americans for many years. Even the audience seemed unmoved and on the short drive back to the White House JFK asked one of his aides - "Do you think they got it?"

The historical marker is where we started meeting at noon every June 10 for many years, beginning around 1992 in response to a request from the Kennedy family to remember JFK for his administration and policies rather than his death, though November 22, 1963 will be forever engraved on his tombstone and that will be the day most people remember him.

The granite historical marker is engraved with parts of the speech, but to get the full effect you need to read the whole thing or key excerpts that we would read at each little memorial ceremony every June 10.

JFK: "I have, therefore, chosen this time and place to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth too rarely perceived. And that is the most important topic on earth: peace. What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children – not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time."

The reference to a "Pax Americana" was in response to a speech given by Air Force General Curtis LeMay who was a bitter Kennedy foe and wanted to enforce a Pax Americana on the world. 

Commemorating the event started out as one of the events sponsored by the Committee for an Open Archive - a non-profit lobby group co-founded by myself and my old college mate John Judge.

The first one was the best as it featured John Newman, who spoke in a class room for awhile before we went over to the monument.  After taking turns reading parts of the speech and expressing why it's still important in our times, we adjourned for lunch nearby and continued the cultured conversations. Since school now gets out a few weeks earlier, some of us stayed in dorm rooms at the University. 

Then while visiting Dallas Soviet Primier Gorbachev stopped by Dealey Plaza, picked up a copy of Robert Groden's book and then took a tour of the Sixth Floor Museum, where he signed the guest register with a notation referencing the June 10th speech as being an important turning point in the Cold War detente.

Gorbacheve wrote: 

I’ve long been interested in the life of John F. Kennedy. He was certainly a great president of the United States. For us who live in a complicated time of transition of great importance is the vision of John F. Kennedy, his thoughts about peace and about how to live in the world. President Kennedy’s remarks on June 10, 1963 at American University are of even greater importance today than then. Thirty five years ago he already saw what we have come to understand only now. The best memory of this man would be to understand his deeds and thoughts and to translate them in policies and more importance in the life of nations. He looked far ahead and he wanted to change a great deal. Perhaps it is this that is the key to the mystery of the death of President John Kennedy.”

Signed The President of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev - October 12, 1998

Some writers and historians even say that the speech was one of the reasons JFK was killed.

John Judge at Historic Marker at American University 

American University is also where John Judge and Col. Fletcher Prouty were featured on a Diane Reame PBS radio talk show that got us a lot of national attention, and was where Judge was a member of a panel of speakers at a small conference on the subject of the movie JFK and movies and politics that was carried nationally by CSPAN. 

While I haven't been there on June 10 in a couple of years, others have continued the tradition, including North Carolina documentary  film maker Randy Benson, who has recorded some of the proceedings that are included in his film on researchers "The Searchers."

And I am sure there will be some people who will stop by the historic marker at American University today and into the futur

MLK at Mary's Cafe 

Two days later - June 12 - and thirteen years earlier - in 1950, divinity student Michael King, Jr. - before he became known as Martin, was driving around with a fellow student and their dates - when they decided to stop for a drink at a road side cafe - Mary's Place - on the clover leaf exit ramp off Rr. 73 and Camden Road in quiet, residential neighborhood of Maple Shade, New Jersey.

The bartender and proprietor Ernest Nichols, a tough German immigrant, refused to serve them, and when they protested he used profanity and fired a gun in the air.

King and company left but went to the police and filed a formal complaint and had Nichols arrested.

On the complaint King and his friend listed their address as 753 Walnut St., Camden, N.J., while the girls with them listed a West Philadelphia address.

Although King obtained the assistance of the Camden NAACP, Nichols got a local attorney who filed a legal brief for Nichols, claiming it wasn't a matter of civil rights or color, but it was after hours when liquor couldn't be sold. 

The case was officially dismissed when four other customers who were called as witnesses - one report says one was a black man and three white Philadelphia college students either failed to appear or refused to testify.

Then all was forgotten until after Michael King became Martin Luther King - icon of the civil rights movement that was changing America and its traditional ways of doing things. When King was called to testify before Congress, a Senator asked him why he made civil rights the major theme of his ministry and King referred to the incident at Mary's Cafe.

Nichols' lawyer later wrote an article about it for the Burlington County Times reflecting on the significance of the incident not only King's life but that of our nation.

When the lawyer died his obituary mentioned the incident at Mary's Place and the attorney's role in it, which caught my attention because I knew of no biography of King that even mentions it, though I have since learned of one. 

One day I drove to the location and found Mary's Place still there, though closed. A sign reported the new owners - the NJ Dept. of lTransportation had plans to demolish it. I took some and looked inside - the bar stools and chairs were upside down and it looked like it had been operating recently as the Morristown Pub.

I then wrote a blog post about it at my White Deer Cafe blog, which got two responses - one from a Philadelphia lawyer - David  Larson, who may have contacted the NJ DOT in an attempt to preserve the building, but they didn't want to hear about it, and the other from Patrick Duff, who first learned of the incident in an archived article "The Bar that Started a Crusade." 

But by the time Duff learned about it the building had been demolished, though Duff has since picked up the ball and has been running with it. Duff obtained a copy of the official complaint from Maple Shade officials that has King's Camden address on it and he paved the way for an historic marker to be placed at the Mary's Place Cafe site, as well as the assistance of a local architectural firm to redesign the area with park benches.

Duff also found news clips that indicate Nichols applied for a liquor license after the incident occurred, indicating he may have been selling liquor illegally without a license when King was there, and he found that Nichols went on to own another bar - Ernie's in Riverside. 

A Philadelphia Tribune news account of the incident reported that one of the women with King was a Philadelphia police officer, and the other was a social worker. 

After meeting with a few reporters and bloggers at the Mary's Place Cafe site on MLK Day in January 2015, Duff shared the official complaint report with the Camden address, - 753 Walnut Street, which I pumped into my phone's GPS map and headed for that location, deep in the rubble of the South Camden ghetto.

There I found the house still standing, part of a side by side duplex that was boarded up, littered with junk  and covered with graffiti, but still solid and restorable.

Duff located the owner and she acknowledged King lived there for about two years when he was a divinity students and she clearly recalled King. She also agreed to allow the house to be restored as a museum and the architects firm agreed to do the necessary design work to have it restored to what it looked like in 1950 when King was there.

But there are still many questions, including what became of the women who accompanied King and are they still alive to give a first hand report of what actually occurred? 

There's also the question of who was Mary? And what became of her?

And how did all of this escape the attention of the historians and biographers who have detailed King's life and death so thoroughly?

We hear all about MLK in Birmingham, Selma and Memphis but there's nothing in the history books or movies about MLK in Camden or at Mary's Cafe (with one exception), where he was radicalized and inspired to champion civil rights as his cause.

Patrick Duff is planing on being at the site of Mary's Cafe at 12:30 pm this Friday, June 12, hold a moment of silence and then hold a press conference to give an update and make some important announcements.

Stay tuned. 

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