Deafening gunshots rang out just as James Martin arrived home. Troubled by the news of a 17-year-old young man dying in front of his house, he did what anyone would do – actually what most wouldn’t do. He grabbed his portable karaoke machine and stood at the sidewalk memorial erected for the young man and began singing, “Wake up everybody, no more sleeping in bed, no more backward thinking time for thinking ahead.”
That was ten years ago. Today, Martin is still standing up for San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood. Recently he called on fathers in the neighborhood to walk their children to school. Standing in front of a group of about 40 people on a megaphone, Martin explained: “We’re here in commitment to our children and we’re here in commitment to our community.”
Martin is the kind of person who tries to tackle difficult problems. His main focus now is helping men stay involved in their children’s lives and their community.
The formative years
Originally hailing from Detroit, James Martin and his family arrived in Bayview in 1959. His father was a bus driver and moved the family out west as the Detroit transit system was shrinking and San Francisco’s growing.
“He said, ‘When you come out here we’re going to live in a big house on a hill overlooking the ocean.’ I tell people dad he was not totally wrong. We lived on a big hill in the projects overlooking the Bay and I say well, that’s close enough,” Martin says, laughing.
Martin was eight when he, his mom, and six siblings moved into the Hunters Point Housing Project. He says at the time, “Hunters Point projects was a very, very beautiful area. I mean the grounds were kept very nicely and very neatly.”
Then, Martin says, the money dried up, the gardener was gone, and it changed. At the time Martin didn’t recognize the changes happening around him. He didn’t even perceive his family as poor. To him it was just the way of life.
“I'll always remember my friends and I picking out those of our friends who we thought were the rich ones in the environment. I believe that our perception was those households that had a father in the family – who had a car and a job – we [felt] like they were wealthy ones,” says Martin.
His father also left. “We got here in ‘59 and by ‘61 he was gone into another life and so mom spent the rest of that time raising us by herself in the project,” explains Martin.
An unexpected role model
As Martin was growing up he noticed how much more civically active women were in the neighborhood – fighting to bring dollars to the community to fund programs, several that shaped who he is today. But throughout his life, he continued to ask this one question: where are the men?
One day on a school fieldtrip to the phone company an unexpected role model walked into his life.
“He was African American. He came down and he greeted us all at the door – a group of us kids at the front of that facility. He had on a three-piece suit he stood erectly, he spoke correctly,” says Martin. Already impressed, Martin says the man then told them, “We’re about to have an extraordinary experience that you all may not have seen or heard before.”
The man in the suit took Martin and the group of students to the phone company’s central office. Walking into the office they heard click, click, click, click.
Looking at the group the man said to them, “Every time you hear one of these hundreds of clicks and thousand clicks you’re hearing that means someone somewhere is taking the phone off the hook.” Martin was amazed: “To us that he spoke so clearly. Made us understand the depth of that technology at the time.”
After, Martin said to himself, “I got to get me one of those suits,” laughing, “and number two this is the job I want to do.”
Martin got the suit and the job. He started off at the telephone company right out of high school. While there, he became the head of urban affairs – his job was to help the company address issues in mostly minority communities. Then, Martin became the main liaison to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). One day his home phone rang and it was NAACP’s then Executive Director Dr. Benjamin Hooks, offering him a job as the Western Regional Director with the NAACP.
“This is not the kind of job that’s going to make you a lot of money but he said I think this kind of job is right for you,” Martin recalls Dr. Hooks saying.
Martin says, the next few years were sobering – dealing with a series of letter bombs, death threats, racial violence, white supremacist, police shootings. Then he received a letter from members of infamous Los Angeles gangs the Crips and the Bloods claiming inhumane conditions in the LA County Jail.
“They said in essence help us NAACP. It’s not that we don't belong in jail we have done things that cause us to need to be in jail because we have broken the law but what’s going on inside here is not suppose to happen to us or any human beings,” says Martin.
Martin’s life was about to change again. With a team, he visited the jail.
“I walked into that jail and I could barely keep my keep from crying. As far as I could see on all three tiers was a young black man,” recalls Martin.
Inmates reported horrendous conditions, including allegations of torture. While working to improve conditions for these men, Martin realized that they weren’t the only ones being affected by their incarceration – these men left voids behind in their communities.
“Right now I can show you all kinds of documentation that talk about the implications of what happens in communities when the fathers are missing,” explains Martin.
He saw a similar problem when he looked around his own neighborhood: “I wondered where are the men? Where are the men in this small village community? And why aren’t they standing?”
Out of this came the Men and Fatherhood Service Program – to help men reunify with their families. Martin started it on his own, but soon the local YMCA got interested and helped him with some funding.
Martin says they try to help men manage their emotions, learn how to address relationship issues, and how to be a supportive parent. In the last four years, over 100 men have gone through the group according to Martin.
Aladin Fagan relied on the group when his son was taken from his ex’s custody two years ago. Fagan recalls his experience:
“During that process I was made to do domestic violence, anger management classes, fatherhood classes, parenting classes. I had to participate in the community. I was forced to take a neurological exam as well as a psychological exam.”
After all that Fagan was finally reunited with his son. Martin’s classes gave him the support he needed to navigate Child Protective Services (CPS).
“You know a lot of times when things didn't go my way I would have to bring myself into class holding my heart in my hand,” says Fagan.
A signature mark
After running the groups at the Bayview YMCA since 2009, Martin is retiring, but, he’s left a signature mark: the man sound – a deep growl that he’s taught the members of his group.
“We make the man sound because we need people to know that we are here. And that we’re not going anywhere,” Martin says over a microphone at the party. “And if we haven’t been there that we’re going to get back to where we need to be because it’s that important for us to be in the lives of our children.”
Aladin Fagan didn’t just learn the man sound from Martin. He says Martin taught him how to be a man.
“Because that’s one thing a lot of us men never learned growing up, was how to be a man,” says Fagan.
That was similar for Martin, until he met the man in the three-piece suit. Now he’s trying to be even more than a man in a suit to those in his community. Though he’s retiring from the Y, it’s not quite the end. He plans to support building the infrastructure of the fatherhood program so it can continue without him and be replicated in other areas.
In the meantime – you might find him speaking at a rally, singing, or performing spoken work about love and brotherhood.
You can listen to more stories in our Sights and Sound of Bayview series here.