King might have spoken at Jersey church in 1951, newspaper notice says – USA TODAY
CAMDEN, N.J. — The church rises above a particularly gritty stretch of Broadway in Camden, where the thoroughfare meets Atlantic Avenue and addicts wander past trash-strewn lots and warehouses.
Zion Baptist Church, though, may have had an early glimpse of the greatest voice of the civil rights era: A local activist and amateur historian believes he’s found evidence that Martin Luther King Jr. preached there in 1951 and again in 1952.
Several attempts to reach someone at the church were unsuccessful this week. Fencing surrounded the church, its front entrance was chained and padlocked, and phone calls went unanswered.
Patrick Duff, whose research led him to a Maple Shade incident that some believe spurred King’s early interest in civil rights and integration, uncovered listings in the Courier-Post archives that suggest a young King, about to graduate from Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland Pennsylvania, visited Zion Baptist.
“Zion Baptist, Broadway and Atlantic avenue, the Rev. Lloyd A. Burrus: 11 a.m.,” reads the listing on Page 14 of the Courier-Post for Saturday, Jan. 13, 1951. “Sermon by the Rev. M.L. King, of Atlanta, Ga.; 2.20 p.m., congregation will attend dedication of South Camden branch of the Y.M.C.A.; 8, sermon, ‘Seeking Signs of Judgment.'”
Duff also believes he may have discovered an account of a 1951 Maple Shade incident in King’s own words.
The incident, well documented in contemporary news reports, began when King, his friend Walter McCall and two female companions were refused service by the owner of Mary’s Place, a corner bar. When King and his friends refused to leave, the bar owner fired a gun into the air; McCall called police and while charges were filed, they were later dropped. King’s address was listed on the complaint as 753 Walnut St., Camden.
Previous accounts were given by McCall and others, but Duff provided the Courier-Post with a clipping from the Philadelphia Tribune, the city’s biggest paper serving the African American community. In an Oct. 28, 1961 story, Tribune staff writer Charles Layne wrote:
“The famous integrationist, who says he got his ‘inspiration from Jesus Christ and operational techniques from Ghandi,’ told reporters of his own local experience with segregation when, in 1951, driving two friends from Philadelphia to Merchantville, N.J., the group stopped for some food.”
“They refused to serve us,” King is quoted as saying. “It was a painful experience because we decided to sit in.” King told Layne the owner brandished a gun and told the group, “I’ll kill for less than that.”
“King and his companions got the police and came back,” Layne’s story continued. “He says the grand jury didn’t indict because two white customers present at the time refused to testify. Dr. King’s two companions in the adventure were Rev. Walter McCall and Rev. Ray Ware.”
Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the Historic Commission (which is overseen by the DEP) is still considering the evidence submitted by Duff and others to grant the home at 753 Walnut St. historic status. The City of Camden has already done so and the home has high-profile supporters, including Mayor Dana Redd, U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, D-NJ, and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, a friend and contemporary of King’s.
The agency hopes to contract with a South Jersey college or university to delve into the home’s history and King’s connections to Camden and Maple Shade, Hajna said.
Darnell Hardwick of the Camden Chapter of the NAACP said the organization was grateful for Duff’s research.
“He’s kept us abreast of all his findings,” Hardwick said. “And he’s doing a great job with his research, and we appreciate it. It’s really interesting that all these things are going on.”