Martin, Louis E. 1912–1997
Louis E. Martin 1912–1997
To the American public, the name Louis E. Martin may not mean much. In the back halls of Washington, D.C., however, Martin wielded as much political clout as perhaps any African American in history. Known around the nation’s capital as the “godfather of black politics,” Martin was a key player in the longstanding—if sometimes rocky—alliance between the Democratic Party and the African American community. His ideas about blacks and politics were so widely regarded that three U.S. presidents sought his counsel in determining the direction their administrations would take on all manners involving race. Although most of his work was accomplished outside of the public eye, Martin was instrumental in countless landmark events, ranging from the appointment of Thurgood Marshall as the first black member of the Supreme Court to the formulation of the civil rights agenda that marked the period of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.
Martin was born on November 18,1912, in Shelbyville, Tennessee, and grew up in Savannah, Georgia. His father, a doctor, had been born in Cuba. His mother was American. While living in Savannah, Martin met Gertrude Scott, whom he eventually married. Their marriage lasted 60 years, until Martin’s death. After first attending Fisk University, Martin went on to graduate from the University of Michigan in 1934, earning a degree in journalism. With college behind him, Martin traveled to his father’s native country, Cuba, and spent two years as a freelance writer based in Havana. He returned to the United States in 1936 and landed a job as a reporter with the Chicago Defender, a major black newspaper. He spent only half a year there before moving back to Michigan to help launch a new black paper, the Michigan Chronicle, serving as its first editor and publisher.
Martin remained at the Chronicle for eleven years. It was during this period that Martin became an active supporter of Democratic politics. Working in Detroit, he saw the day-to-day struggles of workers in the automobile industry. He viewed the Democratic party as the best vehicle for advancing the cause of organized labor. As head of a newspaper, he was in a position to make that view known to a large number of people. He also helped found the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a group of black publishers, and served for two terms as the organization’s president. In 1947 Martin left the Chronicle and moved back to Chicago to become editor-in-chief at the Defender. He ran the Defender for the next dozen years.
In 1959 Martin went to Lagos, Nigeria, where he spent a year as an editorial advisor to a newspaper company called the Amalgamated Press. Returning to the United States in 1960, Martin was recruited by R. Sargent Shriver to work on the presidential campaign of his
At a Glance…
Born Louis Emanuel Martin on November 18, 1912, in Shelbyville TN; son of Willa Martin; married Gertrude Scott; children: Trudy, Anita, Toni, Linda, and Lisa; Education: attended Fisk University; University of Michigan, BA, 1934; Politics: Democrat.
Career: Michigan Chronicle, editor and publisher, 1936-47; Chicago Defender, editor-in-chief, 1947-59, editor, 1969-78, columnist, 1987-97; Democratic National Committee, deputy chairman, 1960-69; special assistant to President Jimmy Carter, 1978-81; Howard University, assistant vice president of communications, 1981-87; Calmar Communications, chairman of the board, 1981-97.
Awards : National Urban League, Equal Opportunity Award, 1979; National Newspaper Publishers Association, John B. Russwurm Award, 1980; Howard University, Communications Award, 1987; Democratic Party, Larry O’Brien Achievement Award, 1992; honorary degrees from Wilberforce University, 1951, Harvard, 1970, Howard University, 1979, and Wesleyan University, 1980.
brother-in-law, John F. Kennedy. Martin played a pivotal role in steering black voters toward Kennedy, and this voting bloc proved to be key to Kennedy’s victory in the election. In particular, Martin was responsible for orchestrating Kennedy’s sympathy call to Coretta Scott King when her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested in Atlanta for a traffic violation. The call received a great deal of attention in black communities nationwide, and helped to cement support for Kennedy among African Americans. Several years later, Martin helped smooth tensions between King and President Lyndon Johnson when King came out against Johnson’s handling of the war in Vietnam.
On the heels of the Kennedy victory, Martin was named deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1961. He remained in that position until 1969, serving as a close advisor on all race-related issues to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. He was, in fact, one of the few bureaucrats who was able to survive the Kennedy-to-Johnson transition with all of his power intact. Martin was given much of the credit for turning out an amazing 96 percent of the black vote for Johnson during the 1964 presidential election. That performance went a long way toward convincing Johnson to keep him around.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Martin was instrumental in backing the appointments of African Americans to scores of posts in Washington and elsewhere, most notably Thurgood Marshall’s seat on the Supreme Court. Vernon Jordan, who has held a number of important positions, is another powerful African American who benefited from Martin’s sponsorship. Others whose appointments Martin helped engineer include cabinet members Robert Weaver and Patricia Roberts Harris; Andrew Brimmer, the first black Federal Reserve Board member; and Army Secretary Clifford Alexander.
As his behind-the-scenes influence in Washington grew, Martin was able to convince more and more prominent policy engineers within the Democratic machine that a civil rights agenda was not only the right moral road to take, but the best one strategically for the party as well. Martin left his Democratic National Committee post in December of 1968, and returned once again to Chicago to assume editorship of the Defender. He maintained a presence in Washington, however, by establishing the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank whose mission was to provide technical and research support for black officials and scholars all over the United States. Martin served as chairman of the Joint Center’s board for eight years. It was his successor, former University of Chicago vice president Eddie Williams, who first dubbed Martin “the godfather of black politics.” Martin himself preferred the title “inside agitator.”
In 1978, with the Democrats back in the White House, Martin was hired as a special assistant to President Jimmy Carter, specializing in policies affecting minorities and women. Following the end of Carter’s presidency, Martin accepted a position at Howard University as assistant vice president for communications in 1981. He stayed at Howard until 1987, when he returned yet again to Chicago to work for Calmar Communications, a public relations firm that his wife and her sister had started a few years earlier. He also contributed weekly columns to the Defender In 1988 Martin suffered a stroke, and two years later he and his wife moved to Diamond Bar, California, where he died in January of 1997, at the age of 84. Although it had been several years since he had last exercised his considerable influence in Washington on behalf of black America, Martin left behind an entire generation of African American politicians whose paths into the political arena he helped to clear.
Ebony Success Library: 1,000 Successful Blacks, Johnson Publishing Co., 1973.
Romero, Patricia W., In Black America, Books, Inc., 1969.
Jet, October 19, 1992, p. 34; February 17, 1997, p. 8.
New York Times, January 30, 1997, p. D21.
Washington Post, January 29, 1997, p. B8; April 20, 1997, p. C7.
—Robert R. Jacobson
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