Walking with Presidents: Louis Martin and the Rise of Black Political Power
Poinsett, Alex, The New Crisis
Little has been written about black political activist Louis Martin, but he has made an indelible mark on black history. Serving as an advisor to Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Carter, Martin quietly influenced civil rights policies for four decades and helped bring African Americans into the political mainstream. For the first time, Alex Poinsett's book, Walking with Presidents, published collaboratively with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, tells the story of the crusading journalist's rise to political power as the consummate White House insider. The Crisis is proud to present the following excerpts as apart of its Black History Month Issue and as a testament to Martin's profound influence on the rise of black political power in the United States.
[Louis] Martin no doubt will be best remembered by history as the most influential black political advisor to both Presidents John E Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, but his voice and influence within the KennedyJohnson White House should not be thought of as the voice of one lone individual. Rather, his impressive behind-the-scenes involvement in the central political events of the 1960s ought to be viewed through a wider lens. Martin was a well-versed representative of the black protest tradition that African-American newspapers nurtured and sustained both before and after Robert S. Abbott's founding of the Chicago Defender in 1905. In his roles at the White House, Martin felt he was speaking up for a whole race.
CHAPTER 2 CRUSADING IN DETROIT
In the [Michigan] Chronicle and other venues during this period, Martin paid considerable attention to the rise of industrial unions. He saw the labor movement as a catalyst for broad social change, recognizing that unions were already bringing white workers better job security, higher wages, shorter hours, special overtime rates, a rational seniority system, and the machinery for handling work grievances.
A momentous change in the labor movement had occurred the year before the Chronicle was launched, when United Mine Workers (UMW) president John L. Lewis and other labor leaders established the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) for workers in the auto, steel, rubber, glass, textile, packinghouse, and other mass production industries. The CIO organized workers by plant instead of by crafts and skills as the more traditional American Federation of Labor (AFL) had done. Most important, the CIO was committed to worker solidarity regardless of race. This was a daring move at the time, in marked contrast with the AFL's history of excluding blacks or restricting them to Jim Crow units. The new union's stance on equal opportunity would help avoid the vicious labor strife that had sparked race riots in East St. Louis in 1917 when factory owners used blacks as strikebreakers.
Because of the new union's promise of equal treatment for blacks and whites, Martin became one of labor's most influential supporters within Detroit's black community. Three black men would become crucial in linking the fortunes of the black community with those of organized labor: Martin, Horace White (a Congregationalist minister), and [State] Senator [Charles] Diggs. Of the three, only Diggs was over thirty. In allying themselves with the fledgling United Auto Workers (UAW), they found a critical supporter for the rights of black citizens in the coming decades.
In April 1941, Ford's River Rouge plant was the scene of another major strike. Like Chrysler, Ford attempted to use blacks as strikebreakers, not only encouraging them to stay inside the plant but arming them and sending them out periodically to attack white workers on the picket line. With a full-fledged race riot almost sure to erupt, the UAWCIO appealed to Martin to help mobilize influential blacks in a campaign to persuade black workers to leave the plant. Quick to help, Martin invited black clergymen and leaders of black organizations to a luncheon conference with union representatives. At the end of the conference, the group issued a statement condemning Ford's exploitation of blacks as strikebreakers and supporting the UAW-CIO. A few days later, NAACP executive secretary Walter White flew into Detroit from New York to personally urge black workers to leave the plant. Many did. The National Labor Relations Board called for an election, and the union won by a decisive 70 percent.
The outcome of the 1941 strike was a victory not only for the auto union, which succeeded in organizing the Ford plant, but also for black workers. In the NAACP's Crisis magazine, Martin hailed the new contract, which stated that all of its terms would apply to all workers regardless of race or national origin, as a dramatic victory. The most significant gain for black workers, he felt, was job security: "[T]housands of Negro workers may now plan their own future without fear. It is freedom from the eternal threats of layoffs for cause or no cause." Martin also touted the union's democratic process of selecting leaders as a means for blacks to advance: "Within the democratic processes of the union, the Negro worker can fashion a new place for himself in American labor and develop a new relationship between the races. White and black workers can meet in the union hall on terms of equality, and they will of necessity educate each other."
Urging black workers to take advantage of the many opportunities offered by the Ford contract, Martin summed up its significance:
"Already many Negro workers at River Rouge have shown that they possess the capacity for leadership. A number of unionists at the plant are giving leadership to thousands of whites as well as to members of their own race . White workers have shown a willingness to accept and follow strong and sure leadership with little regard to color. If the black worker earnestly seeks to integrate himself into the union life, he has unlimited opportunity."
Martin concluded that "within the framework of industrial unionism, there is an opportunity for the kind of democracy that gives status to all regardless of color or national origin."
Addressing the UAW annual convention that year, the union's president, RJ. Thomas, thanked black leaders for mobilizing their community behind the strike and defeating the attempt to use race to divide workers. He singled out for praise Louis Martin, Horace White, Charles Diggs, Malcolm Dade, Charles Hill, and James McClendon, as well as Walter White of the NAACP.
As a result of the coalition that Martin and other young black leaders nurtured with the UAW during the late 1930s and early 1940s, black and labor union solidarity became a reality in Detroit. Likewise, the NAACP fashioned an alliance with labor that lasted for many decades. During the quest in the 1940s for equal treatment in wartime jobs and housing and against police brutality, the coalition would prove useful. Indeed, two decades later, at the 1963 March on Washington, the largest single contingent of black workers would come from the UAW. Its president, Walter Reuther, addressed the crowd and was among the march organizers.
CHAPTER 4 RALLYING THE TROOPS
Based on his record, [John F.] Kennedy seemed at best disinterested in civil rights. But Martin's instincts told him that the principled statements his candidate was making about opportunity and freedom were not merely rhetoric. He thought that over the past year Kennedy had said all the right things about black problems in employment, housing, and public accommodations. Kennedy openly supported the lunch counter sit-ins as being soundly in the American tradition of free speech. Less publicly, he admired King, whom he met with privately to ascertain his views.
To offset Kennedy's weak reputation on the issue, Martin disseminated Kennedy's pro-civil rights statements, his support of the right to protest through sit-ins and other direct action, and his commitment to a "New Deal in Race Relations." The senator's public statements, Martin reminded everyone, were far more liberal than those of his opponent. Nixon had begun backtracking from his marginally liberal record on race matters.
Soon after joining the campaign, Martin suggested to [Sargent] Shriver that their candidate should put Nixon on the defensive by sending him a telegram demanding to know his position on racial integration. That same evening, Shriver placed a midnight call from his hotel suite to the Kennedy family estate in Hyannis Port, and then put Martin on the line. It was the first conversation he and Senator Kennedy ever had. Martin quickly outlined his plan to put Nixon on the spot.
"That idea might sound all right, but you just don't know that s.o.b.," Kennedy replied. "Instead of answering directly, he'll curve and come back with another question. I don't think we can pin the bastard down that way." Kennedy raised more objections. The journalist was not so much offended as impressed by the candidate's blunt reaction, including his salty language, which he found refreshingly honest. "Here was no stuffed shirt," he recalled thi Martin accepted the verdict an hung up.
"Now you see why he's going to be president don't you?" Shriver said.
Until now, Martin had not known what he would think of Kennedy as an individual. "This first verbal exchange with the senator," he later recalled, "affected me like a couple of splashes of champagne. I wanted to call Gertrude [Martin's wife] in Chicago, and tell her about the intimate little exchange with a guy who now I knew in my intuitive bones would be the next president of the United States. Only the lateness of the hour stopped me."
CHAPTER 8 RESCUING THE GEORGIA BRIGADE THE (ARTER YEARS
In August 1978, nearly a decade after leaving the Johnson White House, Louis Martin found himself once again in the Oval Office. Just eight months earlier, he had retired from Sengstacke Publications and moved to Washington, D.C., to take a position as a legislative aide to his friend,Illinois Senator Adlai Stevenson III. The week before, he had been summoned to meet with Jimmy Carter's White House staffers, who showed him a list of black candidates for the position of assistant to the president. Although he knew each of the candidates well, Martin explained that he could not choose among them because he was not sure what the position entailed and what the staff had in mind. All the candidates seemed so highly qualified, he pointed out, that it would not be a mistake to choose any of them. He further suggested that they consider running political operations out of the Democratic National Committee rather than the White House, an arrangement that he had found very effective under Kennedy and Johnson, since it had allowed him to run a freewheeling operation while still enjoying the privileges of a White House aide. The meeting ended without a decision.
Now, one week later, he was back at the White House, invited there to discuss the same list of candidates and help staffers make a final selection. Hamilton Jordan, Carter's chief staff aide, suggested that Martin talk to the president directly. The two of them walked into the Oval Office, where to Martin's surprise, Carter immediately asked him, "What did you do for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson?"
"That's a very long story," Martin replied. "I did a number of things for them."
"Whatever you did for them, I want you to do for me."
Martin had experienced the best and worst: the exhilaration of hearing John Kennedy declare civil rights to be a moral cause, of seeing Lyndon Johnson sign into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, of watching as Thurgood Marshall was sworn in as a justice of the United States Supreme Court. But the stunning successes of those years had been accompanied by sorrow-the losses seemed endless as Medgar Evers, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and finally Bobby Kennedy were all assassinated and the 1960s closed in a sequence of urban riots.
Carter had done much to repair the political disillusionment left by the tragedy of Vietnam and the cynicism of Watergate, though with his defeat, Martin feared the country had taken the turn to the right that Lyndon Johnson had warned him about a dozen years earlier. What this might mean for black Americans concemed him. But despite all, Martin was not a pessimist. He had witnessed real progress. The words he had spoken thirty years earlier seemed apt:
"I think we are fortunate to live in a democratic society which provides the tools with which we can build our brave new world. I take my stand with the optimists. Things may get worse in some quarters before they get better, but the winds of change are blowing inexorably across the land."…
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Publication information: Article title: Walking with Presidents: Louis Martin and the Rise of Black Political Power. Contributors: Poinsett, Alex - Author. Magazine title: The New Crisis. Volume: 105. Issue: 1 Publication date: February/March 1998. Page number: 26+. © Not available. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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