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MLK at Mary's Cafe

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

Mary's Café is now closed. Located at the clover leaf overpass intersection of Route 73 and Main Street, Maple Shade, a suburban town between Camden and Morrestown, New Jersey, the defunct bar and restaurant is now owned by the State.

When I was riding around the area recenlty, 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.

At least there 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 and 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.

When they were refused service, and they refused to leave, Nichols apparently 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 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 pulished, 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 accounts, such as:


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

12 June 1950 King, Walter R. McCall, Pearl E. Smith, and Doris Wilson are refused service by Ernest Nichols at Mary's Cafe in Maple Shade, New 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.

Among those who have called attention to the incident at Mary's Café, Robert Bogle's address is a good example.

Listen to how Mr. Robert Bogle, President of The Philadelphia Tribune gets MLK:

Link to Text of Audio File Here 60 second excerpt

King had strong ties to Philadelphia

By Linn Washington Jr., January 14, 2007

Ask 10 people the question which town played a pivotal role in helping shape the Civil Rights philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and 10 out of 10 will most likely name Montgomery, Ala. Not one person would name the small suburban Philadelphia town of Maple Shade, N.J.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956 may have launched King into international recognition, but King's first legal fight against racial discrimination took place during the summer of 1950 when he filed a lawsuit against a racist bar owner in Maple Shade.

Ask a different group of 10 the question of where and/or how King developed the intellectual framework for his now legendary strategies on non-violent confrontation, and many will mumble something about influences from King's childhood growing up in that rigidly racist section of America located south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

However, once again, the Philadelphia area, and not King's hometown of Atlanta, proved the accelerator for incubating the philosophies that would drive his Civil Rights strategies.

King himself acknowledges many transformative experiences he had in and around Philadelphia, experiences that influenced his life in large and small ways.

These influential experiences include King's attendance at seminary school in Chester, his taking philosophy classes at the University of Pennsylvania and attending lectures in North Philadelphia, which proved important for his life's vision.

For example, King wrote in his first book, "Stride Toward Freedom," that he did not begin "a serious intellectual quest for a method to eliminate social evil" until he entered the Crozer Seminary, then located in Chester.

King enrolled in Crozer in September 1948 after graduating from Atlanta's famed Morehouse College.

King may have climbed to the metaphysical mountaintop in Memphis in early 1968 – hours before his tragic assassination – but the Prophet of Peace's philosophical views on the power of non-violent struggle took root in Philadelphia when he attended lectures on the Indian independence leader Gandhi.

One influential introduction to Gandhi took place on a Sunday in 1949 when King attended a lecture at the Fellowship House, then located on Girard Avenue in North Philadelphia. The speaker that day was Dr. Mordecai W. Johnson, the president of Howard University, who had traveled extensively in India.

King later wrote that he found Johnson's speech "so profound and electrifying that I left the meeting and bought half-dozen books on Gandhi's life and works." Less than a decade after hearing Johnson's "electrifying" speech, King wrote the notable figure asking for his assistance in the work of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

King, in a Dec. 12, 1957, letter to Johnson, explained that the SCLC sought to "implement through non-violent actions the decisions the NAACP has won in the courts." King quickly pointed out that the SCLC had "no conflict" with the NAACP.

The purpose of King's letter to Johnson was to ask him to serve on a national advisory committee for SCLC's "Crusade For Citizenship," a campaign devised to double the number of Black voters in the South.

At that time, segregationist laws and racist practices blocked the majority of Southern Blacks from exercising their Constitutionally guaranteed right to vote. Passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act – in the wake of massive protests organized by King and others – is one of the major victories of the '60s era Civil Rights Movement.

While living in the Delaware Valley during the late '40s and early '50s, as King's intellectual acumen expanded during his studies at the Crozer Seminary, his philosophical perspectives also broadened, aided in part by classes that he attended at the University of Pennsylvania.

One of the philosophy classes King audited at Penn was a graduate seminar in the ethics and philosophy of history, taught by professor Elizabeth F. Flower.

King was one of 10 participants in the seminar, which met on the first floor of a building on Walnut Street.

"We had to compete with the noise of the trolley cars on Walnut Street as well as the plumbing noises issuing from the faculty 'gentlemen's room,' which abutted the classroom," Flowers wrote in a letter decades later. "Martin Luther King's contribution to the discussion was solid and articulate. Interestingly, questions of discrimination do not seem to have come up, but questions of peace and of conflict, of moral order and the effectiveness of a moral stance (as in Gandhi) were much in the air," the letter stated.

King's "thought was already vigorous and well-forged," Flowers recalled. She also remembered King being intrigued by the activist Mohatma Gandhi and the philosopher Immanuel Kant.

Kant "provided several themes which run parallel to the tenor of King's work," Flower's letter continued. Kant saw "humans as objects of respect, simply in virtue of their human rationality, uncrossed by any of the accidents of place, color, creed, origin."

King's long sought pilgrimage to India in 1959 – the home of Gandhi – was sponsored by the Philadelphia based American Friends Service Center (AFSC).

King's guide during his four-week stay in India was an AFSC representative named James Bristol, who lived in India with his family.

Bristol, who lived in Philadelphia's Chestnut Hill section prior to his death, once recalled that the "humble" King received a far bigger reception in India than many heads of state because he was "leading a Third World struggle for decent treatment, using Mahatma Gandhi's method of non-violence to achieve that end. Martin was a natural for adulation and enthusiastic praise in India."

Despite the royal reception, Bristol said King and his wife, Coretta, refused first class accommodations, preferring to live like regular Indians, sitting on the ground and eating off banana leaves.

When King "let his hair down" during late evening talks, three things became clear to Bristol: King was a militant, he deeply loved his enemies and he knew he would be killed some day.

King was deeply appreciative of AFSC's sponsorship of his pilgrimage to India, which he called a marvelous experience.

" Words are inadequate for me to express my appreciation," King wrote in a March 23, 1959, letter to an AFSC official. While praising Bristol in this letter, King declared that "… I am more convinced than ever before of the potency and rightness of the way of non-violence as a method for social change. I believe I came away with a deeper understanding of non-violence and also a deeper commitment."

Two years before King's spiritual pilgrimage to India, he accepted a personal invitation from Kwame Nkrumah to attend the independence ceremonies for the African nation of Ghana.

Nkrumah, like King, had his "Philly Connection," attending classes at Lincoln University and Penn.

Among the African-American dignitaries invited to the ceremonies by Nkrumah, Ghana's first post-colonial leader, was the noted Philadelphia businessman, scholar and theologian Bishop R.R. Wright Jr., a pioneering Black banker and the first Black to receive a Ph.D. in sociology from Penn.

The sting of living in a segregated society was deeply embedded in King's psyche before he came to the Crozer Seminary.

King's first smack of racism came when he was 6 years old, according to an autobiography of religious development he wrote while at Crozer. This ugly incident occurred when the father of a white childhood friend forbade his son from playing with young Martin simply because King was a Negro.

"Here, for the first time, I was made aware of the existence of a race problem," King wrote in this autobiography. "From that moment on I was determined to hate every white person." However, King's parent's "would always tell me that I should not hate the white man … that it was my duty as a Christian to love him."

King discussed how he wrestled with the dilemma of how to love people who hated him. King admitted that he "did not conquer this anti-white feeling until I entered college and came in contact with white students through working in interracial organizations."

That childhood Atlanta experience was King's first incidence of racism, but it was seeing a white man point a gun at him in anger that spurred King's first anti-discrimination lawsuit.

One summer Sunday evening in 1950 when King, his seminary friend Walter McCall and their dates stopped at a Maple Shade, N.J. tavern for a beer, they were denied service by the tavern's owner, Ernest Nichols.

Nichols cursed the two couples, chasing them from his tavern with a drawn gun. Close friends say King was "livid." As a well-read person, King knew that New Jersey had one of the few anti-discrimination laws then in existence and decided to fight back with a lawsuit.

King pressed charges and Nichols was found guilty of weapons charges and fined $50.

A civil lawsuit King filed against Nichols with the aid of the Camden NAACP office was later dropped. Many agree that King's critical views on the Vietnam War were influenced by Philadelphia's vibrant anti-war movement in the '60s.

King's linkage of the Black American Civil Rights struggle with the freedom struggles of other oppressed peoples in Africa, Asia and Latin America received early expression during speeches in the Philadelphia area. During a June 1958 speech in Cape May, N.J., King stated the Civil Rights Movement of African-Americans is part of "a worldwide revolt against the slavery and oppression of colonialism and imperialism."

King returned to Philadelphia frequently throughout his career, both for business and relaxation. Fifteen thousand people attended one 1965 street corner rally where King spoke in Philadelphia. In the months before his April 1968 death, King came to Philadelphia often as he prepared for what would be his final major protest campaign.

King opened the first satellite office for his Poor People's Campaign inside the real estate office on Diamond Street, owned by C. Delores Tucker.

"Martin was a man of peace," Tucker once recalled. "But he was obsessed with economic and social justice for everyone, Blacks-whites-Hispanics, Christians and Jews."

The Poor Peoples Campaign was a protest effort planned for Washington, D.C., to improve conditions of poor people of all colors.

A month after his Philadelphia office opened, King was murdered by an assassin's bullet on April 4, 1968, while he was in Memphis, Tenn., supporting striking African-American sanitation workers.

" Martin always said Philadelphia responded to him so well and he found friends here who stayed with him for life," said Tucker, founder of Philadelphia's Martin Luther King Center for Social Change. "He always found a responsive community for brotherhood in Philadelphia."

Statement on Behalf of

Ernest Nichols, State of New Jersey

Vs. Ernest Nichols, by W. Thomas McGann

20 July 1950

Morrestown, N.J.

On 12 June 1950, King, Walter R. McCall, Pearl E. Smith and Doris Wilson had a confrontation with a New 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 County in 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), a 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.
Edited by William Kelly
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