The New Jersey State NAACP Conference has demanded rejection of an unusual study commissioned by New Jersey’s Historic Preservation Office (HPO) that discounts the significance of the first lawsuit against discrimination ever filed by legendary civil right leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
NAACP State Conference President Richard T. Smith, in a recent letter to HPO, strongly criticized the recommendations and the “very formation” of that study conducted by a team of researchers from Stockton University in New Jersey.
New Jersey’s Historic Preservation Office paid $20,000 for that study as part of its review of an application seeking historic designation for a property in Camden, New Jersey where Dr. King stayed occasionally while attending seminary school in Chester, Pennsylvania nearly 70-years-ago.
King formulated the protest that produced his first lawsuit at that Camden property according to documentation unearthed over the past four years by a New Jersey researcher.
Richard Smith’s letter, on behalf of the NAACP Conference composed of 41 branches in 21 counties, “strongly” urged HPO to reject the study that discounted King’s first lawsuit, a salient event in King’s development as a civil rights activist. The NAACP letter characterized events surrounding that lawsuit as “very significant to American and New Jersey history…”
The NJ Historic Preservation Office had no comment on the NAACP’s letter because that office had not received the NAACP’s letter a HPO spokeswoman stated six days after the NAACP sent its letter.
That controversial study is the first study ever sought by the HPO for a New Jersey Historic Register listing. Because the HPO had placed over 51,000 properties and sites on the NJ Historic Register without a study, Smith’s letter stated that fact “alone causes us serious concern.”
King filed that lawsuit in June 1950 after he and three companions, including a fellow seminarian, were chased from a café’ in Maple Shade, NJ by the gun-waving owner of that establishment who fired the weapon, albeit not at King.
King and his companions received assistance with that lawsuit from the then NJ State NAACP head Dr. Ulysses Wiggins and attorney Robert Burke Johnson. The recent NAACP letter described Wiggins and Johnson as “notable local civil rights leaders.”
King began formulating the Maple Shade protest that led to his first anti-discrimination lawsuit, while at 753 Walnut Street in Camden, according to documentation uncovered by NJ researcher Patrick Duff. That property was owned by relatives of King’s seminary colleague, Walter McCall, who was with King in Maple Shade. King stayed at the Walnut Street home occasionally.
King was at the Walnut Street house hours before going to Maple Shade for the protest that produced the lawsuit, according to Duff’s documentation. King listed 753 Walnut Street Camden as his address on police reports from that gun toting service denial encounter.
The Stockton study speculated that since King had experienced prior incidents of discrimination at the Chester seminary and at a restaurant in Philadelphia, the Maple Shade incident basically had no more impact on King’s “subsequent activism” than any of the other adverse incidents.
“Such contemporary incidents of racial discrimination are important to the HPO’s assessment of the singularity and importance of the Maple Shade incident in King’s experience,” the Stockton study declared.
The minor significance attributed to the Maple Shade incident led the study authors to question rather that incident and its connection to 753 satisfied one criteria being used for this historic Register designation: that the Maple Shade incident “must be deemed formative to Martin Luther King’s life in terms of development of his…subsequent civil rights activism.
While the Stockton study does not view the fact that King filed his first lawsuit from the Maple Shade encounter as having a particular import the NAACP’s letter stated “it can be reasonably concluded that [King’s] stay in New Jersey became the birthplace of his civil rights activism.”
Dr. King characterized the Maple Shade incident as a pivotal event in the growth of his commitment to civil rights activism. Many biographies and books on King include that Maple Shade incident.
Curiously, that study fails to mention the involvements of historic Camden/NJ figures Wiggins and Johnson with King’s Maple Shade incident. Wiggins and Johnson each achieved many historic ‘Firsts’ in NJ separate from their 1950 involvements with King who was then virtually unknown.
Another unusual aspect about the treatment of the historic recognition application for 753 Walnut is the length of time HPO has taken for its review that application for acceptance or rejection.
NJ researcher Patrick Duff first filed an application for historic designation in March 2015. Yet, over 1,000-days later the HPO review had not approved or rejected Duff’s application when such reviews are typically completed within 45-days.
However, HPO spokespersons caution that there is nothing untoward in the years-long review of the application related to one of the world’s most famous persons: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The NAACP letter stated, “we strongly urge [the HPO] to reject the study and designate 753 Walnut Street, Camden, New Jersey for listing in the New Jersey Historic Registry.”