Walking with Presidents: Louis Martin and the Rise of Black Political Power

By Poinsett, Alex | The New Crisis, February/March 1998 | Go to article overview

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.

THE INTRODUCTION

[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. …

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