Civil rights leader visits Camden to save MLK site

20160920_inq_jking20-b
U.S. Rep. John Lewis shakes hands during his visit to Camden.

Activists trying to save a dilapidated Camden house where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lived in 1950 have turned to a big name to help their cause.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights veteran and a King lieutenant, visited Camden on Monday to lend his support to having the home declared a historic site. He called the house a "piece of historic real estate that must be saved for generations yet unborn."

The house at 753 Walnut St. has fallen into disrepair, like many of the nearby properties in the Bergen Square neighborhood. It is vacant and boarded up. A notice was issued in July to demolish it, although city officials said the citation was to force its owner to bring it into compliance with codes.

Activists want the house placed on the state historic registry to ensure that it is not demolished. They believe the appearance by Lewis, who has served in Congress since 1987, will give needed momentum to have the home declared a historic site. Lewis was in the region to receive the Liberty Medal in Philadelphia on Monday night.

"Don't give out. Don't get lost in a sea of despair. Keep the faith," Lewis (D., Ga.) told about 100 people who gathered under a tent in the middle of the street in front of the house.

U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D., N.J.) invited Lewis, who helped organize and was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, to come to Camden to see the home. This summer, Norcross joined Lewis and other lawmakers in a gun-control sit-in on the House floor.

Lewis is the only surviving leader among the "Big Six" of the civil rights movement, a group of prominent civil rights leaders that also included King, James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young.

"The voice that is being added is an icon," Norcross said.

Patrick Duff, the activist who has been spearheading the fight to save the house, said of Lewis: "It's like bringing Babe Ruth to the plate."

King stayed in the three-story rowhouse when he was a student at the now-closed Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, local historians say. The current owner, Jeanette Lily Hunt, said King rented the home from her father-in-law.

"I'm glad it's still standing, through the storm," said Hunt, 85. "It's amazing."

King was living at the house when he was refused service at a bar, along with fellow seminary student Walter R. McCall, in Maple Shade, an incident that helped spark his lifelong crusade for civil rights, according to Duff, who has compiled dozens of documents on the time period.

The pub owner declined to serve them, saying he was prohibited from selling "package goods," alcoholic beverages, after 10 p.m. When pressed for four glasses of ginger ale, he declined, pulled a pistol, walked outside, and fired it a few times.

King reported the incident to police and the owner was arrested, but charges were dismissed when several witnesses failed to testify before a grand jury.

King's Camden address on the 1950 police report was spotted by Duff: "I said, 'Wait, that's not in the history books.' "

But the incident was well known in Camden, said Kelly Francis, president of the Camden County East Chapter of the NAACP. Documents gathered by the civil rights group were destroyed in a fire, he said.

Duff has applied to the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office to place the house on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places. A designation would protect the building from being razed and make it eligible for historical preservation grants.

Duff, 40, wants to turn the house and the adjacent vacant lot into a site commemorating King's time in Camden.

During its heyday, Walnut Street had stately homes with beautiful porches, said former Camden County Freeholder Riletta Cream, who lived a few blocks away on Sycamore Street.

"Camden needs something to bring our spirits up," Cream said. "We want it to come back."

Lewis said he would help with the research and ask the King family for any letters that King may have sent from that address. He recalled often speaking with King about the time he spent at Crozer.

"It's all going to work out," Lewis said. "I would love to come back here and visit when the marker is placed and this building is restored. It will be a day of jubilee."

Lewis also participated in a discussion in Camden on gun violence Monday afternoon.

At the event outside King's home, Lewis met with Meresa Carter Phillips of Camden, mother of 8-year-old Gabrielle Hill Carter, who was fatally struck by a stray bullet in late August.

"This type of thing happens all the time," Phillips said later in an interview about gun violence and the need for solutions. "We hear gunshots all the time. People die all the time. I wish these needs were met before this happened to my child."

mburney@phillynews.com

856-779-3814 @mlburney