New Orleans In 1974 when ACORN could hardly break into the Arkansas Gazette there was a front page story about how the organization and its members had engineered a “takeover” of the Pulaski County Quorum Court, which at that time was the governing body of the County holding Little Rock and North Little Rock. The election victory had been engineered in quite so Arkansans essentially woke up to discover that 235 ACORN members and their allies had suddenly become the numerical majority of what was styled at the time as one of the largest legislative bodies “in the free world.” Buried in some of the stories was the fact that the largest “ally” in this effort and almost the only one of any substance was the 30 or so members of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), a storied union now submerged in the memories of many, and that was solely because of their local “manager” or organizer a youngster our age from southern Illinois named Art Martin, who became a great friend of mine, our work, ACORN and our union over 40 years.
I never really understood whether the ILGWU was all that happy about their participation in that election, but it didn’t matter much to any of us then, we were on a mission, we were doing things “first,” and we were changing the world, whether it like it or not. Art had made the decision easily on a call from Carolyn Carr, our most senior organizer then and behind me, our most senior staffer in the history of the organization. She had done a year as a VISTA with Art somewhere before ending up first in Northwestern Arkansas and then in Little Rock, where I poached her for the fledgling work, so when Art showed up in Little Rock, we were half way there. Art and his family ended up being transferred to Charlotte, North Carolina where he was at the heart of efforts by the ILGWU to try and organize in what used to be the textile center of the US. A couple of years of hitting his head against the wall there and he was in law school and then practicing labor law in St. Louis.
In 1979 when ACORN held our National Platform Convention in St. Louis, I can remember a couple of nights sleeping on the Martin floor and waking up on the run. In 1996 when I was picked off by the police at the front of the long column of a 1000 marchers demanding living wages and hiring practices at the downtown Marriott Hotel at an ACORN National Convention in St. Louis along with others, somehow it was Art again with his 1000 watt charm and smile who sweet talked a judge and prosecutors to let us out of jail and out of town. We never heard another word. For years visiting St. Louis I would joke that there might be an outstanding warrant waiting for me, and Art would laugh and say no more. We would talk about his daughter trying to make it in Hollywood or signing on as an organizer in California. We would laugh some more. You always got it straight with Art, but the delivery always had a smile.
One of the first calls I got after leaving ACORN in 2008 after 38 years ago was from Art. He wanted to sign up for whatever I was doing in the future. Serve on a board, lend a hand, offer advice, it was all typical Art, “call me, Wade, if there’s anything I can do!”
Some people will remember his parties in Little Rock, Charlotte, and St. Louis or Rebecca’s tragic death in her youth or Janine and his family in Missouri. Others will remember what he did for Local 100 or Local 880 in one fight after another as the rarity of an organizer who becomes a lawyer, and therefore really understands.
I will remember him as friend and comrade gone away, way too early and suddenly, this last weekend to a heart attack in St. Louis. Another great peoples’ warrior has fallen and we are all blessed by his work and our own personal memories of a great man.