Monday, January 15, 2018

MLK at Mary's Cafe - As the Story Unfolds

MLK at Mary's Café and Camden - By William Kelly
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753 Walnut Street, Camden, N.J.

Atlanta, Selma, Birmingham and Memphis are all places that are associated with Martin Luther King, Jr.; But Maple Shade and Camden, New Jersey were not, until now.

In June 1950, a young seminary student named Michael King signed his name to a legal complaint against a Maple Shade, New Jersey bar owner for refusing to serve him and listed his legal residence as 753 Walnut Street, Camden.

More than 65 years later, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Camden residence has been saved from demolition—thanks in large part to the efforts of local car salesman Patrick Duff, an amateur historian who documented of the home’s historic significance. The two-story, attached house in one of Camden’s most blighted neighborhoods was to be razed; instead, the city has given the house historic designation and a movement is afoot to restore the structure and turn it into a civil rights museum.

King lived on and off in the nondescript Camden house from 1950 to 1951, while attending Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania.

His Camden residency had been all-but forgotten until Duff, investigating an unrelated matter, happened upon the legal complaint signed by the future Civil Rights leader following the June 1950 incident in nearby Maple Shade.

Duff’s first clue was a newspaper article describing how King and his Camden roommate, fellow Crozer student Walter McCall, and two other individuals were refused service and at gun point were tossed out of Mary’s Place, a Maple Shade bar on what is now a Route 73 clover leaf. King and his companions went to the local police station and filed a civil complaint against the owner of the bar Ernest Nichols, a German born immigrant who had served in the German army during World War I and was married to Mary, who gave the bar its name.

It is believed the Maple Shade incident is the first time King took legal action in the name of civil rights. Renown Camden doctor Wiggins, and a NAACP lawyer and Camden prosecutor helped King pursue the case, which was dismissed after the bar owner pleaded guilty to one of the two charges and paid a small fine. Nichols was represented by a well-known Burlington County lawyer whose obituary mentions the incident. While King was not famous at the time, the lawyer said he heard King respond to the question of why he made civil rights a part of his ministry by saying the incident in New Jersey sparked his interest in the issue.

Mary’s Place was purchased by the New Jersey Department of Transportation and torn down several years ago, but through Duff’s efforts, an historic marker will be placed at the site.

As for the Walnut Street house, Duff’s research led him to Jeannette Hunt, a cousin of McCall’s and the current owner of the now boarded-up building, once owned by her father-in-law. She recalls King and her uncle Walter McCall living in an upstairs room at the house when she was a little girl.

Armed with the legal documents and news clippings, Duff sought to convince the city that the house should be preserved. His work got the attention of Camden mayor Dana Redd and local Congressman Donald Norcross, both of whom wrote letters to the state requesting the historical designation. John Lewis, a Congressman from Georgia and a close friend and associate of King’s, also expressed support. All three spoke at a press conference in September 2017 in front of the house calling for its preservation. 

“This place of historic real estate must be saved for generations unborn,” said Lewis. “Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t just help change America; he helped change the world.”

The New Jersey state Senate passed a resolution 36-0 urging the home be placed on the state historic registry; the city of Camden gave the house the historic designation needed to obtain the funds to restore it; and the Coopers Ferry Partnership assumed title of the property to ensure its preservation. The attention also led to the cleanup of Walnut Street and the clearing of an adjacent lot. “It looks like a different street,” says Duff, somewhat bewildered that his hard work is bearing fruit.

Since then the Coopers Ferry Partnership received a six figure grant to work on the property, but never announced it or used it, and state gave Stockton University over $20,000 to study the facts and determine if MLK actually lived in Camden at all.

In the meantime the roof of 753 Walnut was falling in and some neighbors fixed it on their own.

Then the Stockton "study" failed to interview any living witnesses and only reviewed the published literature and what Duff had sent them. They concluded that the lack of any published references to King's time in Camden went against the possibility of him living there as a residence, but given all the known facts that he stayed there is the most probable alternative. Not a great endorsement that would enhance the NJ state historical certification needed.

Then Duff located yet another newspaper article from the 1980s that quotes one of the residents of 753 Walnut, a young man at the time who had joined the Army, who said that it was his bedroom in the back of the second floor where King and his cousin lived while he was away in the service.

In fact, it was the day he returned in June 1950 when King said they were going to a place in Maple Shade for something to eat, a place known for its good sandwiches. The returning vet warned King not to go as blacks were not welcome there, but King replied, "We have to change that so we can go anywhere."

So this newly discovered report, not included in the Stockton study, clearly indicates King and his friends didn't just stumble on Mary's Place, as was previously assumed, they went there expecting they would be denied service, and were prepared to do something about it.

Now the city of Camden, the state of New Jersey, Stockton University and Coopers Ferry Partnerships should end their hesitation to move on this and properly designate the property as historical, budget the money to restore and preserve the building, and establish the civil rights museum and center that deserves to be there.

— William E. Kelly

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