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LJ Martin


I Dare to Dream

LJ Martin has a dream. “I dare to dream that the world’s children will understand that the world was designed for all of us – that the beauty of (the world) is that we are all different,” he says.

It seems an oversized dream for this teller of stories and singer of songs who appears regularly at Los Angeles schools and foundations. It is a bold dream for a man who has suffered indignity, incarceration and rejection because of the colour of his skin. Ironically, it is a dream that began with hatred, rage and fear.

You Better Get To Know Me

LJ Martin was a restless 26-year-old when Medgar Evers, the charismatic civil rights activist, came to speak at the local church in McComb, Mississippi. “Here was a Black man who talked about how we should not be fearful. I was mesmerized,” he recalls.

Evers words resonated with a young man who had grown up in small town, “Deep South” America where attitudes had changed little since the Civil War. “I had a yearning – a curiosity about why I couldn’t go certain places,” LJ recalls. That yearning had been fuelled by 4-years serving in the US, Europe and North Africa for the Air Force. Now he was back home and no longer willing to settle for a life limited by the colour of his skin.

LJ in the US Air ForceOn his return, LJ had discovered that many Americans felt this same yearning for change. “A lot of white people came to McComb to try and penetrate 300 years of subjugation. They lived in our homes and gave us training sessions.” His tiny hometown, population 3,000, became caught up in the sweep of history when it was chosen as the starting point for a program to help Blacks register to vote.

Suddenly the world was telling LJ what he had suspected since he joined the Air Force – that he should not have to bow his head to a white man or cross the street to avoid walking on the same sidewalk as a white woman. And Medgar Evers, the bright, young shining star of the Civil Rights movement personified LJ’s vision for himself.

“But 3-months later he was assassinated – shot down in his yard returning home from a meeting,” LJ recalls.

“I need to go to the funeral,” LJ told his father, although Jackson, Mississippi was 90 miles away. “I didn’t have anyone to go with me, so I caught the bus and went to this big auditorium,” says LJ. “I was a young man, tall, skinny, looking lost and confused.” Perhaps that’s why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noticed LJ and stopped to speak to him. “He was spirited up by so many young people being there,” LJ recalls. “And he said, ‘We will go through a lot more of this but we will overcome.’”

After the funeral a 3,000 strong procession began. “As we got close to the capital building, there was this bridge,” LJ recalls. “You had to go under the bridge and up a little hill to get to the capital.” White men lined the bridge with bullhorns and LJ recalls them saying “You goddam niggers! You’ve got 5 more feet and we’re going to show you you’re out of place.”

“I got scared. I didn’t have anyone and I saw these machine guns, fire hoses, shotguns…I saw photographers being kicked and their cameras destroyed. Everybody started running. I was so scared that I lost complete control of my entire system. And here it is – I’m in the downtown white section of this big city and I’m all by myself and I’m soiled.”

“This white man pulled up to the curb and says ‘Were you here for Mr. Evers funeral?’ Well when he said ‘Mr.’ I felt that something was right,” says LJ. That white man put some towels on the front seat of his car and drove a frightened, soiled, black man 90 miles to his home. “I don’t even remember his name,” LJ says. “At that point I was raging with hate, but that man had an impact on my way of looking at people.”

Despite this act of kindness, it was the hate that took hold. LJ became committed to the movement. He joined the masses that descended on Washington in August 1963 and heard Dr. King speak about his Dream. He met Malcolm X and was intrigued by his charisma and defiant speeches. He discovered the power of his own words and his commanding voice. “I was a warrior – a spokesperson for the movement.”

LJ enrolled in Broadcast Journalism at Cal State in Los Angeles and joined a group called the ABC’s – Asian, Black Chicano. “We would go to exclusively white parks and hold peace rallies – this sweltering mass of black, brown and yellow people. We’d go to predominantly white schools and we would go in numbers. I spent a lot of nights in jail,” LJ recalls.

“I remember one time I was in a cell with about 100 people, and the cells were designed for 30. (The guards) came in and put shotguns between the bars and cocked them and said, ‘We just want one of you niggers to sneeze.’”

The hatred brewed inside LJ and boiled over with the assassination of Martin Luther King. “That hurt like no other hurt I’ve ever had in my life,” says LJ. “I remember getting drunk and driving my car. A cop pulled me over and gave me a ticket and I tore the ticket up and threw it back in his face. But the Police Department had been warned, ‘Let the niggers alone tonight.’ So the cop drove off.”

LJ wanted to scream at the world and he wrote poetry to vent his anger.

You Better Get To Know Me!

Cause you don't know me…you don’t know me

To you, I'm just a watermelon loving

Dope shooting, chittlin' eatin'

Good for nothing, low down, …nigger

Oh, yeah, I’m just a mad dog coon

spreading mile-a-minute bullshit

At least, that’s what YOU figger

Hey, you don't know me…you don’t know me

Yet, when the grief passed, things changed for LJ. “Martin’s death softened me – made me look at things the way he had taught us,” LJ says. “I decided it was time to stop the hatred, and start weaving in maybes and possibilities.”

You’ve Gotta Get Out There

Forty-five years after the death of Dr. King, LJ Martin’s poetry and his audience have changed.

“I started working with kids, after I had my first kids,” LJ says. After graduating from Cal State, LJ settled in LA, married and got a job as an executive sales administrator with the LA Times. His first three children Lesley, Shannon and David were born.

LJ became a fixture amongst the local children on his street. “I’d get right down, talk to the kids on their level and tell them to hold their heads high,” says LJ. “I started telling stories and they were transfixed and then I realised, wow, I enjoy doing this.”

LJ began speaking publicly to children. “The LA Times allowed me time to go and speak at schools – predominantly black schools. My message has always been about the importance of education,” says LJ. “I told them, encouraged them, dared them, challenged them and hopefully motivated them to realise that education is the key.”

While he was setting the school kids on fire, his first marriage flickered to an end. Two of his children moved out with him while he continued to work at the Times and speak at schools. Five years later he met Debbie, the white, British woman who was to become his second wife.

It was Debbie who said, “You need to call yourself something.” And LJ became Uncle Jake. “It’s a lot of fun being Uncle Jake,” says LJ, “Uncle Jake for goodness sake, for gigglies sake.”

Three years passed. LJ and Debbie had two children, Sam and Hannah and the digital age started to cut into the profits of the world’s newspapers. “The Times went from a family of 15,000 down to about 1,200. They offered buy-outs and in the second year I thought I’d better take it.”

LJ decided to chase his dreams as a storyteller. “It created financial chaos,” admits LJ. “But I couldn’t give up. I couldn’t just tuck it away.”

He continued to dream big. “My stories are global,” says LJ. “I want kids to know there are 1.2 billion other kids out there who basically want the same things.”

His universal vision extends to his International Anthem for the Children. LJ has long wanted his anthem to be sung by the children of the world, and a children’s flag to fly at the United Nations. “That’s what I want,” confirms LJ. “I want the kids to learn about each other so that the fear and anger and ignorance that we’ve embraced won’t be part of their journey.”

LJ has written and recorded many songs, poems and stories for children. He has spoken at many schools and foundations, sometimes for money, sometimes as a volunteer. He has touched the lives of thousands of children. And he has always been “this close” to making the contacts he needs to turn his big dreams into reality.

The day before this interview, LJ met with the woman who founded the Harmony Project, an award-winning program targeting at-risk youth in under-served areas of Los Angeles. LJ is excited! “She sees my role as a motivator. I would talk about the importance of knowing who you are, about empowering and enlightening.”

LJ can see his dream could become reality. “My song, The International Anthem for the Children, she thinks that’s great.”

This opportunity may be another occasion when LJ gets “this close”, but it doesn’t matter. He won’t give up the dream.

LJ remembers meeting a young lady outside the Bank of America, her words still ring in his ears. “The day you came in to speak I thought I was pregnant, I was going to drop out of high school, my old man had left me and all I was thinking was where I was going to get my next joint … but then you started talking. You told me You’ve Gotta Get Out There.”

That girl went on to get a Business degree from the University of Washington and enrolled in UCLA’s Masters program. “That’s what it’s about,” say LJ.

You gotta get out there and cry awhile

You gotta get out there and hurt awhile

You gotta get out there and go without awhile

But the main thing is-


LJ Martin will not live to see his dream become a reality. He died on the 15th of September 2013 at home, taken quickly by pancreatic cancer the day after I finished writing this profile. The man is greatly missed. But as Martin Luther King’s sister, Christine, said at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in August this year, “Yes - they can slay the dreamer….but no they cannot destroy his immortal dream.”

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Reader Comments (3)

What an amazing story! I hope that his International Anthem for the Children becomes a reality and is sung by the children of the world.
Thank you Stephanie for another truly wonderful MIPIK.

December 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEileen Dalrymple

Moving story,

It puts one’s own life into perspective - we think of these events and bigoted attitudes and as being an adoration from history yet they occurred within the lifetime of my generation. It’s the LJ’s of the world that changed it.

December 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBill

Fabulous story Steph,

So very glad to have been able to read about LJ's life - what a wonderful soul.

Uncle Jake followed his heart being the change he wanted to see in the world and that's a life exceptionally well lived!
To all his family and the people that he touched through his wonderful work — The dream is still alive!

December 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMark George

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