Wednesday, January 16, 2013

MLK in South Jersey

                                        MLK Being Arrested at Segregated Lunch Counter 

MLK in South Jersey

Martin Luther King, Jr. has a number of important connections to South Jersey. He visited South Jersey often when he attended Crozier College in Philadelphia, and may have stayed at a house in Camden at the time.

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 South Jersey connection. Jones was the son of a domestic housekeeper for a wealthy family who owned a second summer home in Longport, on Atlantic City’s Absecon Island at the Jersey Shore. Jones’ first experienced racism in Longport and it too had a dramatic effect on him and his ultimate role in the civil rights movement.

MLK AT MARY'S CAFE, Maple Shade, N.J.

[First posted at White Deer Café blog – Sunday, April 20, 2008 ]

MLK at Mary’s Café in Maple Shade (NJ)

Mary’s Café, until it was recently torn down by the State of New Jersey, was located at the clover leaf overpass intersection of Route 73 and Main StreetMaple Shade, a suburban town between Camden and Morrestown.

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 America.

The incident occurred when King was attending Crozier Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. 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 Nichols.

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 United States, and is mentioned in most accounts, such as:

The listing in the chronological history of the civil rights movement simply reads:

12 June
King, Walter R. McCall, Pearl E. Smith, and Doris Wilson are refused service by Ernest Nichols at Mary’s Cafe in Maple ShadeNew Jersey. Nichols fires a gun into the air when they persist in their request for service.

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 Chester into nearby New Jersey and stopped at a restaurant in Maple Shade, outside of Camden. 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.”

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 New Jersey
Vs. Ernest Nichols, by W. Thomas McGann
20 July 1950

On 12 June 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.

State of New Jersey Vs. Ernest Nichols, Defendant.

Around 12:45 A.M., 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 Township of Maple Shade, and the County of Burlington. 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 10:00 P.M. 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.

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 10:00 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 Temple University in 1952-1953 and as Atlanta University in 1958. McCall served as dean and chaplain at Fort Valley State College from 1951 until 1957, when he became pastor of  Providence Baptist  Church in Atlanta. He was the director of Morehouse’s School of Religion from 1965 until 1969.

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