Civil rights activists try to get Camden home MLK Jr. once stayed in historic designation
When people remember the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., many focus on the March on Washington and his efforts in southern states like Alabama and Mississippi. But it was an incident in New Jersey that may have marked the beginning of King’s civil rights work.
“I come up these steps and I think about Dr. King and Walter McCall right on these steps,” says Pastor Amir Khan.
Khan was standing on the steps of the dilapidated Camden home that King listed as his address in police reports from one of the most seminal, yet nearly forgotten moments of his civil rights career. On June 12, 1950, King – who was then a student at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania – fellow seminarian Walter McCall, and their two dates Pearl Smith, a Philadelphia police officer, and Doris Wilson, sat down inside Mary’s Café, a restaurant in Maple Shade, just outside of Camden.
Owner Ernest Nichols refused to serve the four Black customers and then grabbed a revolver from behind the bar. He went to the front doorway and fired several shots into the air outside. With the help of the New Jersey NAACP president Ulysses Wiggins, King and the others filed a police report, pressuring prosecutors to employ the state's 1945 anti-discrimination law, the first of its kind in the country.
Nichols was arrested and charged with several crimes.
“Right on these steps here talking and getting the instructions. Don't go down there to Mary's Cafe. And right here on these steps is when Martin looks back with boldness and authority and says, ‘That's why we should go there, so we can go anywhere,” Khan says.
King would years later testify to a Senate Subcommittee that the incident inspired him to go into civil rights activism. It marked the first combination of legal action and nonviolent civil disobedience that King would make the hallmark of the movement he led.
“This is a 21-year-old Martin Luther King, five years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott ever happened,” says Patrick Duff.
Duff is a local activist and amateur historian. He pieced together the Maple Shade incident, unearthing court documents, in an effort to get a plaque placed at the former site of Mary’s Café. He says he would like to see it made into a park with a more substantial monument.
“I'm a civil rights activist and I could not believe that I didn't know that, being that I grew up two towns from here,” says Duff.
Khan heads a nonprofit that last year bought the Camden house with hopes of turning it into a museum. Last year the state turned down an application for historic designation. Both Duff and Khan say they'll keep trying and making sure these two places can continue to tell a story that had almost disappeared from history.
“And now we are in 2022 and we go anywhere because of what took place here June 11, 1950,” says Khan.
The state turned down the application for historic site designation, saying King had stayed at the Camden house occasionally while his friends lived there, but that those events were not significant enough to warrant the designation.
Khan said they are optimistic they can convince the state otherwise.