Monday, September 26, 2016

MLK in Camden - The Story Thus Far

Image result for MLK in Camden

753 Walnut Street Camden N.J. 
Residence of Martin Luther King, Jr.  1950-1952 

MLK in Camden - The Story Thus Far 

William E. Kelly, Jr.

CAMDEN, N. J.  Birmingham, Memphis and Selma are well-known places in the history of civil rights in America, but few have ever heard of Maple Shade or Camden, and put them in the same category, until now, as the story is still unfolding.

In June 1950, when young seminary student Michael King signed his name to an official complaint, - the first such civil rights legal 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 to its 1950era ambiance, and serve as a civil rights museum, community center and tourist attraction in one of the city's most blighted neighborhoods. How this all came about is a story unto itself.

As is often the case it began a few years ago when local South Jersey car salesman and amateur historian Patrick Duff went looking for something else – attracted to Maple Shade as a town that called Duff’s attention because of its overzealous fear of the Ebola virus. While doing a basic background check on the town that truly is shaded by streets lined with trees, he came across an article “The Bar that Started a Crusade,” that told the story of how Martin Luther King, Jr. had been unceremoniously tossed out of a neighborhood bar and made a big stink of it in court, thus, at first glance, tarnishing the town’s image.

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 a few years before Duff began his crusade, he went to the Maple Shade city council. At first they were cool to Duff’s proposal to make the clover leaf location of Mary's Place a public park, place an historic marker on the spot and highlight its significance. But he also convinced a Morristown architecture firm to design the park pro-bono, and found a sympathetic ear in the Maple Shade city manager.

While at city hall early one MLK holiday Duff asked for and got a copy of the original June 1950 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.

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,” she said. “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 and an Inquirer reporter went to the 753 Walnut Street address and found a boarded up row house covered with graffiti and drug gang symbols, its side and back yard littered with fast food wrappers and used needles, surrounded by boulder strewn boulders, bricks and broken glass. The house, abandoned for 20 years, was a crack house, its only saving grace was that it was attached as a duplex to a house where someone lived.

Once 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. actually lived there and the building was worth saving. The state wanted documentation, the city historians were incredulous, and the neighbors said they just didn't remember King walking their streets. Shortly after Duff began to seek the historical designation that would preserve it the city ordered the building razed as part of its efforts to counter blighted and abandoned buildings.

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.), a friend and King colleague, to support the preservation effort, and all three recently spoke at a September 19  press conference in front of the house 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, a prestigious award that has also been given to the Dali Lama.

Lewis said that it was important to save the house as an historic site because, "Martin Luther King, Jr. didn't just help change America; he helped change the world."

With these latest developments, biographies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and histories of the civil rights movement in America will have to be rewritten, as new details emerge of MLK's time in Camden clearly indicate that it was a crossroads, a turning point in his life, and helped instigate 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 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, Pa., are documented, his residency in Camden has previously escaped general recognition until recently, as Patrick Duff has discovered the story behind the house, one piece at a time. Researching the issue further Duff found other news articles that indicates that the 1950 complaint 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 is being born out.

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 pro bono. Such a museum and center devoted to King and civil rights, they all agreed, could lead to the redevelopment of the whole neighborhood.

After the state asked for more documentation and the city ordered the house torn down, Duff remained undeterred, went back to the archives and discovered the Philadelphia Tribune, the city's venerable black newspaper, had covered 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.


In June 1950 Crozier seminary student Michael King had yet to become Martin Luther, Jr. King and was known to friends as Mike or more formally as Michael King. At the time King and fellow Crozier student Walter McCalll were on summer break from Crozer and working as interns for Haverford professor Ira Reid, the first tenured black faculty member at the Philadelphia college. King and McCall knew the Ivy League sociologist from the Morehouse academy in George. At the time Reid was conducting seminars on oral history techniques, after which he would send 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.

When he graduated early and with honors from Morehouse and was accepted into Crozer, a predominately white and well respected school, King’s father gave him a 1948 black Cadillac as a reward. When King first arrived at Crozer, he stayed in a dorm, where he once berated another black student for drinking beer, as it reflected on all of the black students. But by his second year, when McCall showed up from Georgia, King began to occasionally drink beer and shoot pool, and he moved out of the dorm to live with McCall and his cousins in the back second floor bedroom of the Walnut street row house in Camden. At that time Walnut Street in Camden resembled the tree lined streets of Maple Shade today.

It was a Sunday afternoon when King, McCall and their dates Smith and Wilson, went for a drive, destination unknown, but late in the day 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 Nickles, a big, imposing German immigrant.

King and his companions noticed a few people at the bar, including three college students and possibly a black guy, and sat down at a table.

After being ignored for awhile, 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.” He 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 station where they filed charges against Nickles.

The police went to the bar, took the weapon from Nickles, apparently got statements from the customers, including three college students at the bar, and arrested Nickles on two charges.


At first King was very upset about the whole incident, and was somewhat embarrassed by what happened, as he couldn’t tell his father or family that he was kicked out of a bar and had instigated some legal trouble that would end up in court and possibly the news.

Instead of calling home, 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 Borros, the 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 uncovered by Duff appears to have been based only on statements King and McCall gave Dr. Wiggins, but according to the second Tribune account, Nickles' attorney W. Thomas McCann, of Morristown, explained to the court that Nickles thought King and company 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 in the air, although Nickles did say in a statement that was how he called his dog.

The judge held Nickles on $500 bail.

Nickles had a good attorney in McCann, who was respected in the county court, and the Maple Shade case is mentioned in McCann's obituary among his other accomplishments.

With McCann defending Nickles and Wiggins, Johnson and the NAACP behind King and company, a dramatic civil rights court case was shaping up that could have rivaled the Scopes trial and make them all famous. But then, after the preliminary hearing, the case was dismissed. Apparently, the parents of the three college student who were to be witnesses at the trial, put pressure on their kids and the students declined to testify. So one charge was dismissed and Nickles apparently pleaded guilty and paid a small fine for the second charge.

Other than a few newspaper articles, years apart, that mention the Maple Shade incident, and a passing reference to it in one of King's biographies, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s short but significant time in Camden went generally unnoticed. That King lived in Camden even went under the radar of longtime residents and local historians, one of whom emphatically declared that, "Martin Luther King never set foot in Camden."

Yet, the story is now well documented, and aspects of it are still emerging as we learn more about it.

Nickle's attorney McCann said that he heatd King testify before Congress on the radio, and when a Senator asked King what sparked his interest in civil rights, he recalled the Maple Shade incident, but in those pre-ESPN days, the details are elusive, as Duff continues to collect the historical documentation necessary to get state recognition and monetary grants.

The support of the politicians led to the cleanup of Walnut Street and the clearing of the adjacent lot. "It looks like a different street," said Duff, looking a bit bewildered at the sudden change in the street scape as well as his fortune and the destiny of the house.

While Maple Shade erects an historic marker and considers an MLK park, Camden begins to look for funds to restore the house and revive the neighborhood.

After giving a speech in front of the house on Walnut Street in which he recounted his first meeting and association with King, Lewis said, "I would love to come back here someday to visit again, and see a marker, and this place, this building restored, and it will be a day of jubilation. Don't give up, don't get lost in a sea of despair. Keep the faith."

And no one has kept that faith stronger than Patrick Duff. As Norcross said of him, one person can make a difference, and it doesn’t take education, power or money, like Duff, you just have to be determined, and be right.

 Image result for MLK in Camden

 753 Walnut Street Camden N.J. before they cleaned the lot and the street

Image result for MLK in Camden

Rep. John Lewis (D. Ga.) and Camden Mayor Dana Redd in front of 753 Walnut Street, 
September 19, 2016 Press Conference 

No comments: