Top Black elected officials in New Jersey have been silent on a state decision to not recognize the historic significance of a Camden house associated with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
New Jersey’s highest-ranking Black elected officials — Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker — did not respond to repeated, detailed requests for comment about the decision by the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office.
New Jersey state Sen. Ronald Rice, head of New Jersey’s Legislative Black Caucus, also did not respond to requests for comment. Rice, additionally, is a member of New Jersey’s Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Commission, which has not participated in efforts to elevate recognition of King’s historic “firsts” in the Garden State.
Their silence is disheartening, said Lloyd Henderson, president of the Camden County East Chapter of the NAACP.
“This part of African-American history is New Jersey history,” Henderson said. “What is so heartbreaking is to have this happen when Democrats are in charge. These politicians only come around at the time to vote. But when it’s time to work they’re not around.”
The failure to recognize the historic significance of the house is “a total disrespect” of King’s legacy, said Jak Beula, founder of the Nubian Jak Community Trust, an organization that works to recognize Black history in England.
Britain is one of several countries that have tributes to King’s activism. Others include Ghana, Hungary, India, Israel and Mexico. Scores of U.S. cities have streets named in honor of King, including some in New Jersey and Philadelphia.
The Camden house in question is where King, then a young seminary student, planned his first formal protest against racism.
King and three companions would stage a sit-in at a cafe in nearby Maple Shade that refused to serve Black people. On that day, in June 1950, the white cafe owner refused to serve King and his companions, and chased them from the premises with a gun.
King and his companions pressed criminal charges against the cafe owner that resulted in the owner’s conviction. King listed the Camden house, at 753 Walnut St., as his address on the police report.
King’s group also initiated a civil rights lawsuit against the cafe owner. The New Jersey state NAACP offered legal assistance, according to articles from The Philadelphia Tribune archives.
The civil rights lawsuit later was dropped, largely due to the failure of white witnesses to testify.
King considered the Maple Shade incident significant, said Dr. James Beshai, a retired psychiatrist and one of King’s seminary classmates.
It was so significant to the budding civil rights leader that he sought postponement of his brother’s wedding to attend the court proceedings, according to news accounts from the 1950s.
King described the Maple Shade sit-in as his first during a 1961 press conference in Philadelphia. The Maple Shade protest was several years before King helped lead the history-changing bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama — the event that catapulted him to national prominence.
When activist Patrick Duff presented this information to the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office as part of a preliminary application to have the Camden house added to the state registry of historic places, the office spent four years reviewing the request before it determined it was not sufficient.
“The possibility of identifying a site in New Jersey significant for an association with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been exciting. Dr. King (1929-1968) was a civil rights leader of transcendent importance in American history,” wrote Ray Bukowski, assistant commissioner of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, in a Jan. 31 letter to Duff.
However, Bukowski continued, “We have found that the weight and caliber of evidence does not support claims … with regard to the presence of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at 753 Walnut Street.”
The letter continued: “Please do not misunderstand this finding. It does not mean that Dr. King was never present at 753 Walnut Street. It does mean that Dr. King neither lived nor resided there. His visits to 753 Walnut Street were just that: visits. The preliminary application has failed to demonstrate how many such visits there were, when they occurred, or how long they lasted.”
Bukowski wrote that King’s connection with the house in Camden was not as strong as his connection with the dorms at Crozer Theological Seminary or the home of the Rev. J. Pius Barbour in Chester, Pennsylvania.
Bukowksi also noted that there have been “minimal” references to the Camden house and the Maple Shade sit-in in biographies about King.
Representatives of the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office have not responded to repeated requests for comment since that letter was sent. Representatives of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the Historic Preservation Office, have not responded to repeated requests for comment.
Beula called the ruling “shocking.”
Noted scholar Molefi Asante said the Historic Preservation Office’s understanding of events is incorrect.
“One can never say accurately that the site of the first formal protest by the most consequential, transformative person of an era has ‘minimal’ historic importance without either being deceptive or ignorant of American history,” said Asante, professor and chairman of the Department of Africology and African American Studies at Temple University.
Duff condemned the Historic Preservation Office’s decision and the process it used to arrive at that decision.
He noted that the Historic Preservation Office took four years to review his application and conducted a study to determine the validity of adding the Camden house to the state registry. The Historic Preservation Office has never ordered a study of any of the other 51,000-plus places in the New Jersey Historic Registry.
“Saying Dr. King’s first civil rights incident is of minimal historic importance to U.S. history is tantamount to saying the construction of the pyramids is not important to Egyptian history,” Duff said.