MLK’s South Jersey Connections – By William E. Kelly, Jr.
If Martin Luther King, Jr. had not been shot and killed by a sniper in Memphis 47 years ago he would be celebrating his 86th birthday, but even after his life has been documented in books, films and movies, we are still learning more about the preacher who made civil rights a cause, won the Nobel Prize and was murdered because of his beliefs.
Few of King’s biographies even mention the fact that he once lived in Camden, New Jersey and gave an important speech on non-violent social change to a convention of Quakers in Cape May.
Especially ignored is the incident at Mary’s Café, before he was famous, filed a complaint in Maple Shade against a man who refused him service, an incident that may have sparked his interest in civil rights and taking it up as a cause.
It was June 12, 1950 when King and Walter R. McCall, a fellow Theological Seminary student and their dates Pearl Smith and Doris Wilson were out for a drive and pulled off the highway to a small roadside café called Mary’s Place.
A previously unhearled crossroads that some say was a pivital place in time that may have sparked King’s commitment to civil rights and was thus a significant event in the history of the civil rights movement in the United States.
They sat down in a booth and awaited service, which never came, and when they complained, the bartender took a gun out from behind the counter, went to the door and shot it into the air.
King and his friends went to the local police and filed a complaint, which led to the arrest of the bartender – Ernest Nichols, and a court date. When W. Thomas McGann, the Burlington County attorney who represented Nichols died, the event was mentioned in his obituary and caught my attention.
Mary’s Place was located within the clover leaf intersection at Route 73 and Camden Road, Main Street in Maple Shade, a small town between Pennsauken and Morristown.
After reading the lawyer’s obituary I took a drive to the location and found Mary’s Place still standing, a closed, boarded up roadside bar , and through its windows I could see the stools placed upside down on the bar and chairs on the tables, just as it was left year’s earlier. Now owned by the NJ Dept of Transportation, they soon leveled the place, unaware of its historical significance.
Now, Patrick Duff has initiated a movement of sorts to recognize the place by making it a park with benches and an historical plaque that would explain the sites significance, and he has garnered up some significant support from a local community that didn’t even know their hometown was the scene of such an event, including the NAACP.
Local reporter Daniel Nester and Philadelphia attorney David Larrson have both taken an interest and local officials are now supporting the idea of an MLK Park and historical plaque at the site where Mary’s Place once stood.
Duff has also obtained a copy of the original complaint that King and his friends made against Nichols, which also indicates that at the time King lived in Camden at 753 Walnut Street in South Camden.
Proposed wording for historical marker:
This was the location of Mary’s Place Café, Maple Shade, New Jersey, where on June 12, 1950 Crozier Theological Seminary divinity students Martin Luther King, Jr. and Walter R. McCall and their dates Pearl E. Smith and Doris Wilson were refused service by Ernest Nichols.
When they persisted Nichols shot a gun into the air, an incident that led to charges being filed against Nichols and is said to have inspired King to take up the cause of civil rights.