Officials in the city of Birmingham, Alabama recently approved a resolution to preserve the jail cell where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spent his last period of incarceration five months prior to his assassination in April 1968.
However, in the state where Dr. King staged his first formal protest against discrimination and filed his first lawsuit challenging racial inequity have refused for four years to extend historic recognition to the site where King plotted that first protest in June 1950.
A frequently overlooked fact about King is the birthplace of his legendary civil rights activism was not the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama but Maple Shade, New Jersey – a small town about 13-miles outside of Philadelphia where King staged his first protest.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
That protest inside a Maple Shade café where the owner used a gun to drive King and three companions from the premises also produced the first lawsuit King filed against discrimination. That owner refused to serve King and his companions because they were black.
Today, a baffling facet about the vibrant legacy of the internationally acclaimed King is the fact that some authorities in New Jersey have failed to either approve or reject a request for historic designation of the place where evidence indicates King plotted that Maple Shade protest.
That delay-fraught approval process by New Jersey’s Historic Preservation Office (HPO) has so far lasted over 1,770-days: nearly five times longer than the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
HPO is the entity that places properties and persons on the New Jersey state Historic Registry. HPO reviews for Registry placement usually take 90 days or less.
In March 2015 New Jersey researcher Patrick Duff filed an application with HPO for Registry placement of 753 Walnut Street in Camden, NJ, the house where King plotted the Maple Shade protest while he attended a seminary in a city near Philadelphia.
Duff discovered the significance of that Walnut Street property while researching the 1950 Maple Shade incident. Relatives of King’s seminary colleague and close friend Walter McCall – who was with King during that Maple Shade protest – owned that Walnut Street property. King stayed at the Walnut Street home occasionally when he visited with McCall who lived at 753 with his relatives.
Duff uncovered old newspaper articles where the then owner of 753 and his family members recounted their conversations with King about that protest, including a spirited discussion at that house just hours before the Maple Shade protest.
King listed 753 Walnut Street as his address on police reports that involved that 1950 protest.
In 2016 the HPO rebuffed requests to place 753 on its Registry from Camden’s Mayor, its Congressman and a Resolution calling for placement from the entire NJ State Legislature.
Ignoring these requests, the all-white upper staff of HPO embarked on a truly unprecedented action when it commissioned a $20,000 study to determine the historic validity of King’s presence at the 753 house. The HPO never required a formal study for any of the other 51,000-plus items then on NJ’s Historic Registry inclusive of nearly 100 Registry listings in the city of Camden.
That study conducted by an all-white research team from Stockton University concluded that King did not officially ‘live’ at 753 Walnut…a point not in dispute by King, the persons who lived in 753 and award-winning biographers of King.
Even worse, critics of that study contend, it also declared that King’s Maple Shade protest and subsequent lawsuit were not pivotal in the development of King’s activism. That conclusion contradicts King’s own statements that cited the Maple Shade incident as an impetus for his activism. Other authoritative researchers have confirmed the importance of the 1950 protest.
A spokesman for HPO, in early January 2020, said the office is still “preparing a response to the application and will provide a response once it has been issued.” That spokesman said there is no “timeline”for when Duff’s application will be approved or rejected.
Researcher Patrick Duff, who filed that 2015 application for recognition of 753 Walnut Street, said, “African-American history doesn’t seem important to certain people.”
Officials in Birmingham embrace the value of their slice of Dr. King’s legacy, a recognition thus far dismissed by authorities in New Jersey.