Martin Luther King, Jr. has a number of important connections to
South Jersey. He visited South
Jersey often when he attended in Crozier
and may have stayed at a house in Philadelphia
at the time. Camden
Most significant was his experience at Mary’s Café in Maple Shade on Sunday, June 10, 1950, when he and three friends were refused service, an event that led a gun being fired, charges being filed and a court hearing, all of led to his being radicalized and steering him in the direction of seeking civil rights for all.
King also visited
Cape May, where he
gave a speech in 1958, before he became a national spokesman for civil rights.
One of King’s aides, Clarence Jones, who helped write the “I Have A Dream” Speech, also has a
connection. Jones was the son of a domestic housekeeper for a wealthy family
who owned a second summer home in Longport, on ’s Atlantic
City at the Absecon
Island . Jones’ first experienced
racism in Longport and it too had a dramatic effect on him and his ultimate
role in the civil rights movement. Jersey
[First posted at White Deer Café blog –
Sunday, April 20, 2008 ]
Mary’s Café, until it was recently torn down by the State of
, was located at the
clover leaf overpass intersection of Route 73 and New Jersey Main
Street, Maple Shade, a
suburban town between and
When I was riding around the area, the old neighborhood near where I grew up, I stopped by the old highway bar, looked in the door window, and saw the stools upside down on the bar and the interior dirty, dusty and ghostly. But it was pretty much all there, plastic and formica art deco interior that could have been cleaned up and opened as a museum, not of a typical Jersey bar, but the place where Martin Luther King’s attitude on civil rights changed, and thus changed America.
There at least, should be an historical plaque at the curb, letting people know what occurred there on that Sunday afternoon,
June 10, 1950.
The account has been memorialized by publishers and ministers, who have taken the liberty to embellish on what they knew of what occurred at Mary’s Café, but the truth is, the experience changed Martin Luther King forever, and was, in retrospect, something of an epiphany that is still having an effect on civil rights in
The incident occurred when King was attending Crozier Theological Seminary in
King was driving around that warm Sunday morning with another Crozier student,
Walter R. McCall, and their dates, Pearl Smith and Doris Wilson. They stopped
at the roadside café, where they were refused service by the proprietor, Ernest
There were a few people at the bar that day, so they sat in a booth, but were ignored by Nichols, described as a tall, muscular man of German extraction. After awhile they got the message, but they refused to leave, so Nichols is said to have pulled a pistol from behind the bar, stepped to the door and fired the gun in the air.
That was enough and King and his party left, but that wasn’t the end of it. Walter McCall went looking for a policeman and filed a complaint against Nichols, resulting in his arrest. Although there were three other patrons, witnesses there at the time, one reportedly black, they refused to testify and the charges were dismissed, but not before Nichols’ lawyer, W. Thomas McGann, entered Nichols’ statement into the record.
The incident, while not widely known or published, is often cited as a key spark to Martin Luther King’s radicalism, instigating his civil activism and the beginning of his attempts to achieve civil rights across a broader spectrum. It is mentioned in most chronologies of civil rights actions in the
and is mentioned in most accounts, such as: United States
The listing in the chronological history of the civil rights movement simply reads:
King, Walter R. McCall, Pearl E. Smith, and Doris Wilson are refused service by Ernest Nichols at Mary’s Cafe in
There is an account in one crisp paragraph in Bearing the Cross –
MLK and Southern Christian Leadership
Conference; (p. 40), by David J. Garrow, which won the 1987 Pulitzer
and RFK prizes in biography and literature.
“Towards the end of King’s first year at Crozer, another incident involving a gun took place. King, McCall, and their dates had traveled from
nearby Chester and
stopped at a restaurant in New Jersey Maple Shade, outside
of . The white
proprietor refused to serve the foursome, and they chose to remain seated. The
owner became furious, pulled a gun, threatened them, and finally ran outside,
firing the pistol in the air. With that, the group chose to leave, and McCall
sought out a policeman, with whom they returned to the establishment. McCall
pressed charges, and three white witnesses initially agreed to testify against
the owner. Parental pressure later changed their minds, and to King’s and
McCall’s dismay the matter had to be dropped.” Camden
There is no other reference in the records referring to “Parental pressure,” but surely the three witnesses were locals, who frequented Mary’s Café frequently, and would have more to lose testifying against the owner of their local bar than if they didn’t testify at all.
Statement on Behalf of
Ernest Nichols, State of
Ernest Nichols, State of
Vs. Ernest Nichols, by W. Thomas McGann
1950, King, Walter R. McCall, Pearl E. Smith and Doris Wilson had a
confrontation with aNew Jersey tavern owner, Ernest
Nichols, who refused to serve them. 1. King and his friends charged Nichols
with violation of a state civil rights law. Nichol’s statement, prepared by his
lawyer, defends his refusal to serve the group and his brandishing of a gun.
McGann implies wrongdoing on the part of one of the complainants, who was
described as “quite insistent that Mr. Nichols sell him package goods or a
bottle and this caused Nichols to become upset and excited because he knew he
was being asked to do something which constitutes a violation.” McGann argues
that Nichols did not generally refused to serve blacks: “it is well known and
can be proven without doubt, that for years Mr. Nichols has served colored
persons.” Nichols promises to obey the civil rights statute in the future: “Mr.
Nichols steadfastly maintains that he is willing to serve colored folks and
knows under the law that he must serve colored patrons.” The case was dropped
when three witnesses refused to testify on behalf of the complainants.
Ernest Nichols, Defendant. New Jersey
Around , Monday morning
June 12, 1950 four
colored persons came into the tavern of Ernest Nichols, which is located on
Route S-41 and Camden Pike, in the , and the Township of Maple
At the time in question, one of the four walked up to the proprietor, Ernest
Nichols, and asked him for “package goods.” This Mr. Nichols refused to sell
and stated that it was Sunday and he could not sell “package goods” on Sunday
or after on any
day. Then the applicant asked for a bottle of beer and it is alleged that Mr.
Nichols answered “no beer, Mr.!” Today is Sunday.” The applicant was quite
insistent that Mr. Nichols sell him package toods or a bottle and this caused
Nichols to become upset and excited because he knew he was being asked to do
something which constitutes a violation and which might get him into trouble,
were he to submit to the request of the colored man. County of Burlington
It is alleged that Mr. Nichols, while the colored folks were still in his tavern, obtained a gun and walked out the door of his tavern and while outside fired the gun in the air. Mr. Nichols claims that this act was not intended as a threat to his colored patrons. The colored patrons, on the other hand, while they admit that the gun was not pointed at them or any of them, seemed to think that it was a threat. Mr. Nichols on the other hand states that he has been held up before and he wanted to alert his watchdog who was somewhere out side the tavern grounds.
Admittedly my client was excited and upset and perhaps gave the impression that he was and is antagonistic to negroes and did not want to serve them because of their color. On the other hand, it is well known and can be proven without doubt, that for years Mr. Nichols has served colored patrons. I might point out that at the arraignment before Judge Charlton, the Judge, and the prosecuting attorney, George Barbour, Esquire, readily admitted that they knew Mr. Nichols has served colored folks in the past.
Mr. Nichols became so excited and upset because he was under the impression that the visit by the four colored patrons was an obvious attempt to get him to violate the law so that they could report his misconduct and violation to the authorities. He felt that the colored gentleman, who asked for “package goods,” who appeared to be an intelligent man, was well acquainted with the regulation prohibiting taverns from selling bottle goods or “package goods” on Sunday and after in the evening. This circumstance, in itself, made my client very suspicious of the actions and requests of the complainants. He thought at the time that surely the colored gentleman knew that his request constituted a violation. I might point out here that at the hearing in
Maple Shade one
of the colored witnesses admitted that he was asking for something that might
constitute a “violation.”
The colored patrons left the tavern within a few minutes and returned again to chat with certain persons at the bar. This tended to confirm my client’s conviction that the complainants were endeavoring to in some way ensnare him in some violation of the law.
Mr. Nichols steadfastly maintains that he is willing to serve colored folks and knows that under the law he must serve colored patrons so long as their requests are lawful and the patrons in question are not under the influence of intoxicants. Mr. Nichols further says that in the past he has served colored patrons and is presently continuing to do so.
This statement is submitted in the spirit of assisting the Prosecutor of the Pleas, of Burlington Countyin the investigation of the case in question. The statement is submitted without prejudice to the rights of the defendant.
[signed as below]
W. Thomas McGann,
Attorney for Ernest Nichols.
Walter Raleigh McCall (1923-1978), the Morehouse classmate of King’s, graduated from Crozer in 1951. He later pursued postgraduate work at
1952-1953 and as Temple University in
1958. McCall served as dean and chaplain at Fort Valley State College from 1951
until 1957, when he became pastor of Atlanta University in Providence
Baptist Church .
He was the director of Morehouse’s Atlanta from
1965 until 1969. School of Religion