Waiting for Justice in New Jersey

Ask 100 New Jersey residents who is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and more than 90 will quickly reply, a civil rights leader.

Ask 100 New Jersey resident who is Peter McGuire and more than 90 will quickly reply, Peter who?

King and McGuire both made historic accomplishments. Both the Atlanta born King and the New York City born McGuire have connections to New Jersey. However, historic preservation authorities in New Jersey have treated King and McGuire as differently as black and white.

Peter J. McGuire is the late-1800s U.S. labor leader who many cite as the founder of Labor Day.

King, of course, is the iconic activist whose lauded influences extend beyond the United States. One example of King’s global impact is the statute of King among the ten 20th-century religious figures whose importance produced their statue placement over the main door of London’s majestic Westminster Abbey.

King and McGuire both have connections to the city of Camden, New Jersey.

McGuire spent the last years of his life in Camden. His grave is in Pennsauken, the small town located next to Camden. McGuire’s accomplishments include founding the national carpenter’s union, advocating for the eight-hour workday and co-founding the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

King plotted his first protest against racism in June 1950 at a house in Camden where he stayed occasionally with his close friend and fellow seminary student who lived at that house owned by his relatives.

A frequently overlooked fact about King is the birthplace of his society-changing activism was not Montgomery, Alabama where King’s leadership of the legendary Montgomery Bus Boycott catapulted King to national prominence.

King’s first protest took place in the Maple Shade, NJ, a small town located six miles from Camden and adjacent to Pennsauken. That first protest, at a café where the white owner forced King and his three companions from the premises with a gun, produced the first lawsuit King filed against discrimination.

On January 17, 2018 authorities with New Jersey’s Historic Preservation Office (HPO) placed Peter McGuire’s Memorial and Gravesite in Pennsauken on the state’s Historic Register. That 2018 HPO action occurred 194-days after receipt of an application for McGuire’s registry placement.

In sharp contrast to McGuire’s placement on NJ’s Historic Register, HPO authorities have failed to either approve or reject an application for registry placement of the house in Camden where King plotted his first protest. That application for placement of 753 Walnut Street in Camden, filed in March 2015, has languished in HPO for 1,771-days as of the January 20, 2020 King National Holiday.

HPO’s delay-fraught review of the registry application for King has lasted nearly five times longer than the 381-day-long Montgomery Bus Boycott.

In 2016 the HPO – where the decision makers are all white – rebuffed requests to place 753 on its Registry from Camden’s Mayor, its Congressman and a Resolution calling for placement approved unanimously by the entire NJ State Legislature.

Ignoring these requests, the 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 Street – a point not in dispute . King, the persons who lived in 753 who confirmed King’s plotting of that protest there plus award-winning biographers of King all stated King only ‘stayed’ at 753 during visits with his seminary colleague. King listed 753 as his address on a police report about the Maple Shade protest. King’s seminary colleague participated in that Maple Shade protest.

The professed expert on African American history in Camden County retained by the Stockton U. team had declared in a 2012 newspaper article that King “never set foot in Camden.” That historically inaccurate declaration should have disqualified that person from the Stockton study team, critics contend.

That Stockton study reached a truly startling conclusion.

The study declared that King’s Maple Shade protest and his 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.

That conclusion constitutes a ‘white-out’ the historical significance of King’s first protest and his first lawsuit.

Incredibly, both HPO and the Stockton team discount support King obtained in 1950 from two noted NJ civil rights luminaries: then state NAACP president Dr. Ulysses Wiggins and NAACP attorney Robert Burke Johnson. Wiggins went to King’s aid the night of the Maple Shade protest. Johnson filed the lawsuit for King. (Wiggins and Johnson both lived in Camden in 1950.)

In another incredibly stance, HPO did not commission a study on the McGuire placement application despite vigorous dispute over whether Peter McGuire or New Jersey native Matthew McGuire actually founded Labor Day. The U.S. Department of Labor and the New Jersey Historical Society cite Matthew McGuire as the founder of Labor Day.

An HPO spokesman recently stated that the “significance of the Peter J. McGuire Memorial and Gravesite is not based upon the founding of Labor Day but rather on McGuire’s contributions to the labor movement.”

That rationale for approving registry placement for McGuire while so far denying placement for King seemingly indicates HPO does not consider King’s ‘contributions’ to the civil rights movement historically significant – a posture that is both inaccurate and for some, insulting.

That HPO spokesman said the office is still “preparing a response” to the King registry application and HPO will provide “a response once it has been issued.” That spokesman said there is no “timeline” on when the application for 753 will be approved or rejected.

New Jersey 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.”

The unusual HPO registry recognition process for 753 that began under New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, has continued under current NJ Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat.

Gov. Murphy and NJ Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver (an African American) refer requests for comment about HPO actions/inactions to HPO. The Stockton study team refers requests for comment to their university’s spokespersons who refer inquiries to HPO.

Officials in the city of Birmingham, Alabama recently approved a resolution to preserve the jail cell where Dr. King spent his last period of incarceration, five months prior to his assassination in April 1968.

New Jersey state government authorities have yet to provide any official state historic recognition to the site of King’s first protest and subsequent first lawsuit.

More articles by:

Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.

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