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Ridiculing MLK’s Historic Garden State ‘Firsts’

The Governor of New Jersey and that state’s two top black elected officials face criticism for their silence on a recent ruling by New Jersey state historic preservation authorities that devalues the early activism of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Many deem that ruling fallacious while some also denounce that ruling as racist.

Dr. King staged his first formal protest against racism in New Jersey on June 11, 1950, years before his leadership of the history-changing bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama catapulted King to national prominence.

That 1950 protest produced Dr. King’s first lawsuit against discrimination. During the protest he organized at a café in the small South Jersey town of Maple Shade, the white owner chased King and his three companions from the premises with a gun.

The criticism that stains New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, New Jersey Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver and U.S. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey erupted in the wake of that historic preservation ruling, released on the literal eve of Black History Month 2020.

In that ruling NJ authorities rejected state historic registry listing for the house in Camden, NJ where evidence documents that King plotted his 1950 protest. Authorities rooted their rejection ruling in the astounding assertion that Dr. King’s first protest and his first lawsuit hold “minimal” historic importance.

This dismissal by NJ authorities of the significance of Dr. King’s first protest and his first lawsuit is historically inaccurate, stated Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, Professor and Chair of the Department of Africology and African American Studies at Temple University in Philadelphia.

“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,” Dr. Asante said.

Governor Murphy, Lt. Governor Oliver and Senator Booker have refused to comment on the widely criticized rejection/dismissal actions announced by NJ’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the state agency that oversees the Historic Preservation Office (HPO), the entity that approves or rejects state historic registry listings.

Gov. Murphy declined to address specific questions about his position on the DEP/HPO dismissal of Dr. King’s historic ‘Firsts’ in New Jersey. Oddly, Murphy’s office directed questions about Murphy’ opinions regarding DEP/HPO anti-MLK actions to the entities that perpetrated those actions: the DEP/HPO.

Governor Murphy, in a statement released by his office, said, “The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s State Historic Preservation Office should be contacted for further information.”

Despite Governor Murphy’s evasive non-comment comment, at least he did respond to inquiries. That’s in stark contrast to New Jersey’s two top black elected officials.

Lt. Governor Oliver and Sen. Booker respectively failed to respond to repeated requests for comments regarding DEP/HPO dismissal of the historic import of the Camden house where King launched his legendary activism plus the historic ‘Firsts’ of King’s activism in New Jersey.

The failure of Murphy, Oliver and Booker to address the demeaning actions/assertions by DEP/HPO on Dr. King’s legacy in New Jersey is disheartening, stated Lloyd Henderson, president of the Camden County NAACP branch.

“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 DEP/HPO posture on King is even more baffling from the perspective of New Jersey history because it completely dismisses the pivotal roles two noted NJ civil rights leaders played in King’s 1950 protest and lawsuit. Hours after King’s 1950 protest, he received assistance from the then NJ state NAACP president and that NAACP’s lawyer.

That NAACP president, Dr. Ulysses Wiggins, had lobbied for passage of the civil rights law the NAACP’s lawyer, Robert Burke Johnson, utilized for King’s lawsuit. That NJ civil rights law was the first such statewide civil rights enforcement measure approved anywhere in the United States. Further, both Wiggins and Johnson achieved their own series of historic ‘Firsts’ in New Jersey.

The NAACP connection makes the silence from Murphy, Oliver and Booker peculiar because each touts their respective connections to the NAACP.

Gov. Murphy’s official biography highlights his past, ‘proud’ service as New Jersey’s sole representative on the national board of the NAACP. Campaign material during Oliver’s successful 2017 race for Lieutenant Governor stated “she had held membership” in the NAACP. And, Booker is a frequent speaker at NAACP events nationwide, most recently during his aborted bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“The problem with Murphy, Oliver [and Booker] is that they don’t know the other side of the narrative. They just know what HPO said. They never came to Camden to discuss this with us who know,” Kelly Francis said. Life-long Camden resident Francis noted, “What King did in Maple Shade has been known in Camden since the 1950’s.”

Criticism of the DEP/HPO dismissal of Dr. King’s historic ‘Firsts’ in New Jersey extend far beyond the Garden State (the nickname for New Jersey).

In London the founder of the Nubian Jak Community Trust, called the DEP/HPO actions “shocking.” The Trust is an acclaimed organization known in part for placement of plaques around England to honor the contributions of non-whites to Britain –- including blacks from America.

“This is a total disrespect of MLK’s legacy,” Dr. Jak Beula said. “I honestly believe the detractors know what they are doing. This is why I have always said we should do things ourselves.”

Tony Warner, founder of the respected Black History Walks tours in London, characterized the DEP/HPO actions as “more evidence of the Trump trickle-down effect.”

While DEP/HPO discounted King’s activism in New Jersey, Dr. Beula said he’d consider having his organization place a historic plaque at the Camden property where King plotted his first protest.

Warner said he is raising funds for the placement of a plaque in London at a site where King once spoke. That King address in London is another example of King’s activism that had roots planted deeply in New Jersey.

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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