Thursday, February 23, 2023

MLK in Camden and Maple Shade, NJ

 MLK in Camden and Maple Shade, New Jersey

By William E. Kelly

                                                    753 Walnut Street, Camden, NJ 

This still being Black History Month, and since there's going to be a major MLK Conference in Memphis in April, I thought it appropriate to mention some of the most recently discovered aspects of Martin Luther King's first civil rights case, and it's continuing ramifications. 

I will be writing a more in depth preview of the Memphis conference soon, but in the meantime you can learn more about it here: The JFK Historical Group .

Atlanta, Birmingham, Selma and Memphis are all cities associated with Martin Luther King, Jr., but two more are now finally being recognized – Camden and Maple Shade, New Jersey.

Having  been born and raised in Camden and never hearing of King being in my hometown, I was a bit incredulous when I read in the Burlington County Times an obituary for Morrestown, NJ attorney W. Thomas McCann. It mentioned in passing that he defended the bartender-owner of Mary’s Place bar and grill in Maple Shade against civil rights charges brought against him by Martin Luther King.

Now I had read most of the biographies of King and thought I knew enough about him, but I had never heard of this, so I drove to the nearby town of Maple Shade and there it was, Mary’s Place café in the middle of a clover leaf intersection leading onto Route 73, a busy highway.

It was closed and a notice on the door said it was condemned and slated for demolition by the NJ Dept. of Transportation.  Looking in the window I saw a tile floor and formica bar with bar stools and chairs upside down on the bar and tables, like it had just closed yesterday. I took some photos with a throwaway camera that I still have somewhere, still undeveloped.

When I got home I wrote a blog post about what I knew and heard from a Philadelphia lawyer who said he was trying to save the place from demolition because of its historical association with MLK, but he failed and the place was raised.

Then I heard from Patrick Duff, a used car salesman who was researching another unrelated subject on Maple Shade when he discovered the MLK story and read my blog post and asked me to meet him at the site of the former Mary’s Place in Maple Shade, which I did. There, I met Duff, a few of his friends, and Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Ed Colimore, whose now retired, but would write a number of stories related to this case.

Duff had been researching the story for awhile and told us that in 1950 MLK, his best friend and Crozier Seminary mate Walter McCall and their two dates were driving in MLK’s black 1948 Cadillac that his father had given him for graduating from high school early and being accepted at Crozier. They stopped at Mary’s Place and sat at a table, but when they weren’t served King went to the bar and asked for four beers. The bartender refused to serve them so they sat down and had a sit in until the bartender got a gun from behind the bar, opened the door and shot it into the air.

King and company left, went to the Maple Shade police, filled out a complaint and the police arrested the bartender Ernest Nichols, a German WWI veteran, for civil rights violations and discharging a gun unlawfully.

Then Duff pulled out a copy of the original complaint signed by the four – including Michael King, as he had yet to be named Martin Luther King.

Then I saw the residence address he gave – 753 Walnut Street, Camden, NJ.

Wow! I thought, King did live in Camden. So I punched the address in the GPS on my phone and immediately drove there.

Walnut Street is in a very bad section of South Camden, with only a few habital homes, and 753 Walnut was the vacant side of a rowhouse duplex, gang slogans spray painted on the boarded up windows and door, with broken bricks, glass and hyperdermic needles on the ground surrounding the house.

I took a few photos of the building and later that evening I heard from the reporter Colimore, who asked me if I had gotten any photos as it was too dark when he got there. I sent him a photo of the front of the house that appeared in the next morning’s Inquirer, front page Jersey section along with his fine story.

Meanwhile Duff went to the Camden tax office where he learned that the vacant house was owned by a Mrs. Hunt, visited her and knocked on the door. She answered and acknowledged owning 753 Walnut, and when asked if there was anything special about the place, she said, “Well Martin Luther King used to live there with my uncle Frank McCall.”

She explained that King wasn’t the famous Martin Luther King, Jr. he is today. But just a friend of McCall, a relative of her father who let McCall and King live in a bedroom in the back of the second floor for two years while they were seminary students.  She lived there too, and said, “We passed in the hall and said hello, and I remember them standing out front leaning against a car talking,” but that’s petty much it.

Duff kept digging and found some old newspaper clips, the Philadelphia Tribune, the city’s black newspaper, covered the trial, and King was assisted by Camden NAACP leader Dr. Ulyssis Wiggins, who obtained the assistance of the first black prosecutor in Camden who defended King in the Maple Shade court.

One of  the reasons I deducted, that the story never made it into King’s biographies, was the fact that King kept it from his father, not wanting to tell him that he had been evicted from a bar at gunpoint on a Sunday. So he got the assistance of the NAACP and Wiggins, who now has a park on the Delaware River waterfront named after him that sits at the end of Martin Luther King Boulevard, so their names are joined once again together.

While the NJ civil rights law was passed a few years before the incident but in court, that charge was thrown out because Nichols attorney W. Thomas McCann claimed that Nichols thought King wanted beer to take out, which was prhobied on Sundays, so that charge was dismissed, and Nichols fined $50 for the unlawful dischrage of a firearm.

Duff also found a newspaper article from the early 1980s that described the incident in detail and was headlined “The Bar that Started a Crusade,” as it was the first of many civil rights cases King would bring to courts around the country.

When King testified before Congress a Senator asked him why he made civil rights a major part of his ministry, King referrd to the Maple Shade incident, so it was a significant event in his life.

Duff applied to the NJ Historical Preservation Commission to certify the King House in Camden as historical, but it too k them over a year to give a five figure grant to Stockton University at the Jersey Shore to study the historical value of the house. While Stockton has a Black Studies Department, they set up a ad hoc committee with no back members and an amateur historian from Camden who didn’t have a college degree and who was quoted in the newspapers as emphatically and falsely saying “Martin Luther King never set foot in Camden.”

The study concluded the house has “minimal historical signifiance,” and they continue to maintain that position today, despite the fact King lived there for two years and while there was involved in his first civil rights case.

When King’s last living close associate Congressman John Lewis came to Philadelphia to recieve the Freedom Medal, local Camden political boss Congressman Donald Norcross invited him to Camden to visit the King House. The city blocked off both ends of the street, cleaned up the broken glass and needles, painted some of the buildings and sprused up the house and neighborhood. They put a tent in front of the King House in the street, and after a number of speeches by others, Rep. Lewis said:  “The work Dr. King started decades ago is still unfinished. This property, which stands now as a simple row home, can serve as a touchstone for generations to come as they learn about Dr. King and his deeds to make our country stronger and more inclusive.”

In the meantime Duff found that King had attended a sermon by Howard University President Mordecai Johnson at a Church in Philadelphia, when Johnson espoused the non-violent demonstrations of M. Gandhi that freed India of England’s colonial shackles, and suggested the same tactics could be used in the civil rights movement, an idea King took to heart and practice.

Now the State of Pennsylvania has certified that church as historical because of the documentation Duff provided, and there is a plaque on the wall of the church, and an historical marker in Maple Shade at the site of the former Mary’s Place café.

What needs to be done is having the 753 Walnut building completely restored with a new roof, floors, windows, doors, plumbing and electricty, so it can be made into a real community center, and the NJ Dept. of Historical Preservation must certify it as historical as it clearly is to everyone but them.

In addition, I hope Patrick Duff will be invited to give a more detailed presentation on this story to the MLK Conference in Memphis in April. 

1 comment:

Piano Man Larry Hunt said...

Interesting article, Thanks for writing and posting it