On 12 June 1950, King, Walter R. McCall, Pearl E. Smith, and Doris Wilson had a confrontation with a New Jersey tavern owner, Ernest Nichols, who refused to serve them.1 King and his friends charged Nichols with violation of a state civil rights law. Nichols’s statement, prepared by his lawyer, defends his refusal to serve the group and his brandishing of a gun. McGann implies wrongdoing on the part of one of the complainants, who was described as “quite insistent that Mr. Nichols sell him package goods or a bottle and this caused Nichols to become upset and excited because he knew that he was being asked to do something which constitutes a violation.” McGann argues that Nichols did not generally refuse to serve blacks: “it is well known and can be proven without doubt, that for years Mr. Nichols has served colored patrons.” Nichols promises to obey the civil rights statute in the future: “Mr. Nichols steadfastly maintains that he is willing to serve colored folks and knows that under the law he must serve colored patrons.” The case was dropped when three witnesses refused to testify on behalf of the complainants.
State of New Jersey Vs. Ernest Nichols, Defendant.
Around 12 : 45 a.m., Monday morning June 12th, 1950 four colored persons came into the tavern of Ernest Nichols, which is located at Route S-41 and Camden Pike, in the Township of Maple Shade, and County of Burlington. At the time in question, one of the four walked up to the proprietor, Ernest Nichols, and asked him for “package goods.” This Mr. Nichols refused to sell and stated that it was Sunday and that he could not sell “package goods” on Sunday or after 10 : 00 p.m. on any day. Then the applicant asked for a bottle of beer and it is alleged that Mr. Nichols answered “no beer, Mr! Today is Sunday.” The applicant was quite insistent that Mr. Nichols sell him package goods or a bottle and this caused Nichols to become upset and excited because he knew that he was being asked to do something which constitutes a violation and which might get him into trouble, were he to submit to the request of the colored man.
It is alleged that Mr. Nichols, while the colored folks were still in his tavern, obtained a gun and walked out of the door of his tavern and while outside fired the gun in the air. Mr. Nichols claims that this act was not intended as a threat to his colored patrons. The colored patrons, on the other hand, while they admit that the gun was not pointed at them or any of them, seemed to think that it was a threat. Mr. Nichols on the other hand states that he has been held up before and he wanted to alert his watchdog who was somewhere outside on the tavern grounds.
Admittedly my client was excited and upset and perhaps gave the impression that he was and is antagonistic to negroes and did not want to serve them because of their color. On the other hand, it is well known and can be proven without doubt, that for years Mr. Nichols has served colored patrons. I might point out that at the arraignment before Judge Charlton, the Judge, and the prosecuting attorney, George Barbour, Esquire, readily admitted that they know that Mr. Nichols has served colored folks in the past.
Mr. Nichols became so excited and upset because he was under the impression that the visit by the four colored patrons was an obvious attempt to get him to violate the law so that they could report his misconduct and violation to the authorities. He felt that the colored gentleman, who asked for “package goods,” who appeared to be an intelligent man, was well acquainted with the regulation prohibiting taverns from selling bottle goods or “package goods” on Sunday and after 10:00 in the evening. This circumstance, in itself, made my client very suspicious of the actions and requests of the complainants. He thought at the time that surely the colored gentleman knew that his request constituted a violation. I might point out here that at the hearing in Maple Shade one of the colored witnesses admitted that he was asking for something that might constitute a “violation.”
The colored patrons left the tavern and within a few minutes returned again to chat with certain patrons at the bar. This tended to confirm my client’s conviction that the complainants were endeavoring to in some way ensnare him in some violation of the law.
Mr. Nichols steadfastly maintains that he is willing to serve colored folks and knows that under the law he must serve colored patrons so long as their requests are lawful and the patrons in question are not under the influence of intoxicants. Mr. Nichols further says that in the past he has served colored patrons and is presently continuing to do so.
This statement is submitted in the spirit of assisting the Prosecutor of the Pleas, of Burlington County in the investigation of the case in question. The statement is submitted without prejudice to the rights of the defendant.
[signed as below]
W. Thomas McGann,
Attorney for Ernest Nichols.
1. Walter Raleigh McCall (1923–1978), a Morehouse classmate of King’s, graduated from Crozer in 1951. He later pursued postgraduate work at Temple University in 1952–1953 and at Atlanta University in 1958. McCall served as dean and chaplain at Fort Valley State College from 1951 until 1957, when he became pastor of Providence Baptist Church in Atlanta. He was the director of Morehouse’s School of Religion from 1965 until 1969.
W. Thomas McGann Papers, In Private Hands (CSKV88-A9)