MLK in Camden - The Story Continues
Camden, N. J. - 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, N.J.
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 heart and convinced him to devote his ministry to civil rights.
While King's studies at Crozier, across the Delaware River in Chester, Pa., 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 newspapers Duff came across an article "The Bar that Started A Crusade," that related how in 1950 Martin Luther King had filed charges against a Maple Shade, N.J. bar owner for refusing to serve him and three friends.
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 as more details emerge.
Although the roadside bar called Mary's Place where the incident occurred, was purchased by the N.J. Department of Transportation and had been torn down, Duff went to the Maple Shade city hall and got 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 policewomen.
What jumped out at Duff was the address King gave as his residence - 753 Walnut Street, Camden, the same address as McCall.
The owner of the now boarded up row house recalled King living there when she was a young girl, saying King and McCall rented a back room from her father and they were very congenial guests.
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 University Camden Law School. Such a museum and center devoted to King and civil rights they agreed, could lead to the redevelopment of the whole neighborhood.
But shortly after a fund was established to restore the house as it was in 1950 when King lived there, the state notified Duff that they did not consider the site of Mary's Cafe or the house in Camden to be historically significant, and to top it off - the owner of the house received a letter from Camden City officials ordering her to demolish the building.
Undeterred, Duff went back to the archives and discovered two articles in the Philadelphia Tribune, the city's venerable black newspaper. They had covered the Maple Shade incident in detail and provided the key details that certify the event as a life changing crossroads for King, and many of the others involved.
THE INCIDENT AT MARY'S PLACE CAFE
In June 1950 Crozer seminary students Walter McCall and Michael King - he had yet to become Martin Luther, were on summer leave from Crozer and working as associates of Ira Reid, the first tenured black faculty member at Haverford College on the Main Line in Philadelphia. King had known Reid as one of his professors in Georgia, and had previously taken a seminar with Reid, at Haverford on developing interview techniques and oral history as part of a program to document the lives of Baptist preachers.
It was a Sunday afternoon when King and McCall and their dates Smith and Wilson, went for a drive, destination unknown, but later in the day, on the way home, they pulled off the highway that is now known as Route 73 and stopped at a roadside cafe Mary's Place.
While the identity of Mary has yet to be ascertained, the cafe and liquor license were then owned by one Ernest Nickles, a big, imposing German immigrant.
King and his companions entered and sat down at a table or booth, and noticed a few people at the bar, including three Philadelphia college kids and possibly a black guy.
After being ignored for a while, King got up and approached the bar, asking for service.
Nickles refused to serve them and when it appeared that King and company were not leaving until they were served, Nickles 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.
That was enough for King and his companions to leave, but they went directly to the police station where they filed charges against Nickles.
The police went to the bar, took the weapon from Nickles, apparently got statements from the customers, and arrested Nickles on two charges.
ATHE CASE IN COURT
King and McCall then apparently contacted the head of the Burlington County NAACP, who referred them to Robert Burke Johnson, a lawyer with the NAACP in Camden. The pastor of Zion Baptist church in Camden Lloyd Burros also put them in contact with Dr. Ulysses Wiggins, the head of the local branches of the NAACP. Originally from Georgia, Wiggins was a respected black professional who offered legal assistance. So the NAACP attorney Robert Burke Johnson, an assistant prosecutor, represented King and the other complaintants at the preliminary hearing and trial in Maple Shade Municipal Court before Judge Percy Charlton.
The first Tribune article appears to have been based on statements King and McCall gave to Dr. Wiggins.
According to the second Philadelphia Tribune account, Nickles' attorney W. Thomas McCann, of Morristown, explained to the court that Nickles thought King wanted take-out liquor, which he was unable to sell at that hour on Sunday by law, but as the Tribune article puts it, he was unable to explain Nickles shooting the gun, though Nickles did say that was how he called his dog.
The judge held Nickles on $500 bail.
Nickles later went on to operate “Ernie’s Bar” near Riverside, New Jersey, and his attorney W. Thomas McCann became a very prominent Burlington County lawyer, who later wrote about the incident and it is mentioned in his obituary.
Walter McCall became a popular pastor in North Carolina, while Robert Johnson was appointed to the Camden School Board and insisted that segregation of Camden elementary schools come to an end, and it did, and he did it. There is now a Johnson Elementary school in Camden named after him.
Dr. Wiggins became a very prominent person in Camden, and Wiggins Park on the Camden waterfront is named after him.
Martin Luther King Boulevard that runs through downtown Camden ends at Wiggins Park, not far from Johnson Elementary School, so there is a crossroads in Camden that already reflects the contributions they made to Camden and out society.
MLK’s Camden home is historically significant, despite the opinions of the state of New Jersey bureaucrats and Camden housing officials, and it should be preserved and restored and become the centerpiece of a new, revived neighborhood.
The site of Mary’s Café in Maple Shade should be converted into a public park with some benches and an historic plaque that will reflect the story of what happened there.
And the biographies of Martin Luther King and the story of the civil rights movement in America should be updated to reflect this history, as we are still coming to know it.
Philadelphia Tribune June 1950
City Policewomen Charges N.J. Inn Keeper with Bias
Maple Shade, N.J. - A Philadelphia police women, together with a social worker, and two college students, lodged complaints against a cafe proprietor of this borough early Monday morning for violation of the state's civil rights act when he allegedly refused to serve them and became abusive. The man, Ernest Nickles, proprietor of Mary's Cafe on Rt. S-41 and Main St., was also charged with brandishing a gun and using obscene language.
Mrs. Pearl Smith, the police women, of 735 N. 40th St. Philadelphia, and Miss Doris Wilson, same address, a Philadelphia child care worker, in company of Michael King, Atlanta, Ga., and Walter McCall of South Carolina, students of Crozer Theological Seminary, Chester, Pa., entered the place, they said, and asked to be served, According to statements made to Dr. Ulysses Wiggins, President of the state conference of Branches of the NAACP, they were ordered out by Nickles.
When they did not leave, the man allegedly ran in the back and obtained a gun which he fired in the air out the front door, saying, "I would kill for less than this.”
The group said several white patrons in the place attempted to calm the man and asked that the negroes be served. According to the police woman and her companions, these people volunteered to appear against Nickles should they press charges.
Leaving the establishment complaints were filed at police headquarters. The police were said to have obtained the gun from the man when he was taken to the police station. At a hearing held Monday morning Nickles appeared with his attorney, a Mr. McCall of Morristown who asked for a continuation of the hearing. Thursday evening was set by Municipal Judge Percy Charlton.
Robert Burke Johnson of the legal staff, of the NAACP, was contacted by Boyd Eatmon president of the Burlington County Branch. Not familiar with the legal procedure in New Jersey, the offended visitors, all highly reputable persons, were put in contact with Dr. Wiggins by the Rev. Lloyd A. Burros, pastor of the Zion Baptist Church, Camden. Rev. Burros was called by the men, both of whom were his schoolmates at Crozer Seminary. King and McCall are in this section to assist Dr. Ira DeA. Reid with summer work at Haverford College.
Philadelphia Tribune June 20, 1950 (Page 1)
N.J. Inn Keeper Held After Four Charged Refusal
Maple Shade, N.J. ,- Municipal Court Magistrate Percy Carlton held Ernest Nichols, in $500 bail, on two counts at a hearing Thursday night, in complaints filed against him by Walter McCall, Crozer Theological Seminary student, and three other Negroes who were allegedly refused service last Sunday night, in Nickle’s cafe on Rt. S-41 and Main here.
The other complainants were Mrs. Pearl Smith, Philadelphia policewomen, Miss Doris Wilson, a Philadelphia social worker, and Michael King, another theological seminary student at Crozer seminary, Chester, Pa.
W. Thomas McCann, Morristown attorney who represented the cafe owner, was unable to convince the magistrate of the innocence of his client, although Nickles stated he served Negroes in his place of business. The attorney urged that the public be given both sides of the story.
He said his client testified in court that the four Negroes wanted to purchase “package liquor to carry out,” which he was not permitted to sell at that late hour. The “misunderstanding” arose over that, the attorney explained. Just why Nickles would fire a gun, as he was alleged to have done, could not be satisfactorily explained to the court.
Three white witnesses, who were patrons in the place at the time of the trouble, volunteered to testify in behalf of the complainants, and appeared at the trial.
The police-women and her companions contacted the president of the New Jersey Conference of branches of NAACP, and were represented at Thursday night’s hearing by Attorney Robert Burk Johnson, legal aid of the association. Johnson is an assistant prosecutor of the Court of Common Pleas in the county of Camden.
Dr. Ulysses S. Wiggins heads the N.J. NAACP, branches.