History January 29, 2021 at 11:00 am

The little-talked about ‘godfather of Black politics’ who wowed four U.S. presidents

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

Mildred Europa Taylor January 29, 2021 at 11:00 am

January 29, 2021 at 11:00 am | History

Walking to the Oval Office: President Lyndon B. Johnson and Louis Martin (Courtesy of Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum)

In the 1960 U.S. Presidential campaign, John Kennedy was running a close race with Richard Nixon. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was in a Georgia state prison on a traffic violation. Kennedy was advised to make a sympathy call to King’s wife, Coretta Scott King. Still undecided, with others against the idea, it was Louis E. Martin who helped persuade Kennedy to place that telephone call to Coretta to express shock over the jailing of her husband. That phonecall was instrumental in Kennedy winning a majority of the Black vote in the 1960 Presidential Election. And this was all thanks to the work of Martin.

Many have called him the man who chose to remain largely in the background facilitating others’ rise to power. Martin, trained as a journalist, worked with four Democratic presidents: Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Jimmy Carter. Having worked as a reporter and editor of some African-American newspapers, it wasn’t surprising that he worked closely with these presidents as “publicity aide” and then as a liaison between African Americans and these presidents.

Thanks to him, scores of African Americans got placed into government and judicial positions, including Thurgood Marshall being named as the first Black Justice on the Supreme Court. Perhaps for influencing some historical presidential decisions regarding African Americans and bringing more Blacks into government in the late twentieth century, Martin became known as ”the godfather of Black politics.” But there’s more.

Martin was born in Shelbyville, Tenn., the son of an African-American woman and a Cuban-born doctor, but was raised in Savannah, Georgia where he met his future wife, Gertrude Scott. He attended Fisk University and graduated from the University of Michigan where he earned a B.A. in journalism in 1934. During his college summers, he did some newspaper work with The Atlanta Journal and worked as a bodyguard one summer for a cruise ship’s silver room, according to The Washington Post.

After graduating from the University of Michigan, he worked as a freelance writer in Havana, Cuba before beginning his professional career as a journalist with The Chicago Defender, a Black newspaper. Within a year, he had moved to Detroit to become the editor of another Black newspaper, The Michigan Chronicle.

By 1936, Martin had started supporting Franklin D. Roosevelt editorially during his campaign for president. In the 1944 campaign, Martin worked as a publicist before his career as a presidential advisor began in 1960 when Democratic politician Robert Sargent Shriver recruited him to work with the Presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy. Becoming a trusted White House counsel, Kennedy listened to his advice on the telephone call to King’s wife that became a major point in winning over the African-American vote.

Martin then became a liaison to the Black community. “When we needed someone to complain to about the lack of Justice Deparment observers at a trial,” said John Lewis, then an outsider in the ranks of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, “the next day someone would be there.”

The political activist and journalist even organized a reception for 800 Black personalities. That was the largest number of Blacks ever to gather at the White House at the time, The Washington Post said. During this same time, Martin became Deputy Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. After Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Martin was one of few advisors that easily transitioned to the Johnson administration, where he played significant roles in policies such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and in the nomination of Thurgood Marshall as a Supreme Court Justice.

Under the Carter administration, Martin’s role as a representative of the Black community was also felt when, at 65, he became the special assistant for minority affairs. “President Carter asked me about those years with Kennedy and Johnson, asked me how they worked and I said it was a personal relationship. He said, ‘Well do the same,'” Martin recalled in an interview.

Martin would help Black people rise in politics, including Clifford Alexander, the first African-American Secretary of the Army, and Vernon E. Jordan, advisor to President Bill Clinton. Despite his considerable influence, Martin was largely unknown to the public. ”One reason for this is that in Washington, he was the consummate political insider,” Eddie Williams, the president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a research organization in Washington, said. ”He traversed the corridors of power for many years without calling attention to himself and his achievements.”

Notwithstanding, Martin, as a political activist, made some public speeches that centered on race relations in the United States while calling on African-American government officials, civic leaders, academics, businessmen and women and local opinion leaders to get involved in the fight to address the concerns of African-American communities.

All in all, to those who worked with Martin, he was a “wise” man who knew the “jungle of politics better than most.” According to Jack Valenti, one of Lyndon Johnson’s men, “Johnson would be fussing and Louie would get a half-grin on his face, would say, ‘Okay, here’s the situation,’ and the president would settle down. Then he would say, ‘Okay, you handle it, Louie.’ That was a phrase we heard frequently.”

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