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Ruby Grant Martin Biography

Found Education and Racism in College, Helped Turn Civil Rights into Law


Government official

Ruby Grant Martin grew up surrounded by the pervasiveness of racism in the pre-Civil Rights era. She rode in the back of buses, was barred from restaurants, and could not go where she wanted, when she wanted. Yet she never let these obstacles stop her. She found her way around racist policies, beating the racists at their own game. "We were able to foil the system that tried to dehumanize us by making fun of it," Martin explained in "Reinventing Race Relations," a 1992 speech she gave in Richmond, Virginia. But Martin played smart too. She provided research for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She oversaw desegregation in schools around the country. She advised governors, counseled Congress, and founded a law firm to help minorities and poor people. She did not just foil the system—she changed it.

Found Education and Racism
in College

Ruby Grant was born in the rural town of Lake Village, Arkansas, on February 18, 1933. She lived there until her family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, when she was nine. Though most schools in the South were still segregated by race, many northern schools were not. Martin was thus educated alongside white children, mostly Eastern European immigrants. Her father insisted that Martin's grades be better than her classmates because her family could speak perfect English, while the parents of her schoolmates could not. Martin took her father's advice and excelled in school.

Though she had been spared the brunt of deep southern racism by her family's move north, she felt it keenly when she enrolled in Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee. In "Reinventing Race Relations," Martin recalled, "I was subjected to all of the officially imposed racial separation and sanctions, as well as all of the instances of abuse and the indignation that were heaped upon me and my fellow classmates, simply because we were colored in a city of the deep south." Those sanctions included being forced to sit in the back seats of buses and to use "colored" facilities like restrooms, drinking fountains, and even fitting rooms in department stores. Martin got around the last indignity by bringing her blonde-haired, blue-eyed roommate to try on clothes for her.

Martin graduated from Fisk in 1956 and moved to Howard University, another historically black college in Washington, D.C. When she received a law degree from Howard in 1959 she had the highest academic average of her class. She was also the class president. Despite her impressive achievements on campus, as soon as she stepped onto the streets of Washington, D.C., she became a second-class citizen. "What made the situation in the nation's capitol so much more heartbreaking was that persons from the international community, even those whose skin was blacker than mine and whose hair was more kinky than mine, were allowed to dine in restaurants and patronize theaters whose doors I could not even darken, no pun intended," Martin continued in "Reinventing Race Relations." She and her fellow students got around the double-standards by borrowing clothing from African classmates, and walking proudly past "whites-only" signs dressed in traditional African garb.

Helped Turn Civil Rights into Law

After graduating from Howard, Martin went home to Ohio and took a job with the Cleveland Community Relations Board. Within the year, however, she returned to the nation's capital. Martin wanted to put her legal training to good use helping change the plight of African Americans. She made a good start when she became a staff attorney for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1960. The commission was charged with gathering information on minority groups nationwide. The findings of the commission formed the basis of much of the civil rights legislation in the early 1960s, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The landmark act prohibited segregation in public accommodations and discrimination in education and employment—the very things that Martin and her contemporaries had suffered throughout their lives.

In 1965 Martin joined the staff of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). She held a variety of administrative and legal jobs, including assistant to the assistant to the Secretary of the department. Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Congress established the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) within HEW. OCR was charged with ensuring that publicly-funded institutions such as schools and hospitals did not violate Title VI of the act, which expressly forbid discrimination based on race. In 1967 Martin was appointed operations director of the OCR. As she said in a 1968 interview with the Washington Post, the government was making a move from "studying to action." Martin was going to be part of the action.

Martin's job was to ensure that Title VI was complied with nationwide. She considered it an honor, and described Title VI to the Washington Post as "having the greatest potential for changing the country." Her department would investigate hundreds of institutions nationwide. Their main tool of enforcement would be the withholding of federal funds. Though the landmark 1955 Supreme Court case Brown v. the Board of Education had declared segregated schools to be unconstitutional, desegregation was slow in coming. In 1957, nine black students had faced vicious mobs to attend a high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. Federal troops had to be called in. Later, school districts across the country tried to avoid desegregation by redrawing school district lines to follow the racial boundaries of neighborhoods. In other districts, threats from the Ku Klux Klan kept black parents from sending their children to white schools.

if Not Racism Erased Segregation

Martin and company had their work cut out for them. "Where I work is probably the most controversial area of government," she told The Washington Post in 1968. "Every day I come with my armor on wondering what's going to happen." She was often in direct confrontation with local officials and as a result incurred the wrath of several powerful politicians. In February of 1968, a congressman from Georgia demanded Martin's resignation when she found that the school districts in his territory had no plans to develop a desegregation strategy.

At a Glance …

Born on February 18, 1933, in Lake Village, AR; died on May 8, 2003; married Henry S. Martin; three children. Education: Fisk University, BA, 1956; Howard University, LLB, law, 1959.

Career: U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Washington, DC, staff attorney, 1960-65; Cleveland Community Relations Board, Cleveland, OH, investigator, 1959-60; Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), assistant, Washington, DC, 1965-67; Office of Civil Rights, HEW, Washington, DC, operations director, 1967-69; Washington Research Project, Washington, DC, co-director, 1969-72; House Committee on the District of Columbia, Washington, DC, counselor, 1972-78; lawyer in private practice, Richmond, VA, 1978-90; Commonwealth of Virginia, Richmond, VA, state secretary of administration, 1990-93.

Selected memberships: National Bar Association; Women Executives in State Government, treasurer; Children's Defense Fund, board of directors; Southern Regional Council, board of directors; Port of Richmond Commission, chairperson.

Selected awards: U.S. Civil Service Commission, Distinguished Federal Women's Award, 1968; Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Distinguished Service Award, 1968; NAACP, Freedom Fund Award, 1991; NAACP, Public Service Award, 1992; Virginia Union University, Honorary Doctorate, 1993.

Despite the difficulties, most Southern school districts complied with her office's mandates. She told the Washington Post, "I've been amazed how Deep South school officials have gritted their teeth, closed their eyes, and gone about the business of conforming with the law." Yet she was not naive enough to think they were happy about it. She acknowledged that the reason for the South's compliance was "not that they are behind us, but that people there are basically law-abiding citizens." In fact, racial tensions were reaching an all-time high in the country. She was one year into her post with the OCR when Reverend Martin Luther King was assassinated.

In her final two years as the operations director of the OCR, Martin turned her attention on Northern schools. She told the Washington Post at the time that her office did not foresee busing—transporting children to schools outside their neighborhoods to achieve racial integration—as a method she would employ. Instead she hoped to focus on the quality of education. "The criteria we apply is this: what is the quality of education being dispensed in the schools?" she told the Washington Post. "If the schools are equal in opportunity, even if they're all white or all Negro, we'll pack up our bags and move elsewhere."

Martin left the OCR in 1969 after two mostly successful years. She was awarded for her work with a Distinguished Federal Women's Award from President Johnson. At 34, she was the youngest woman ever to receive the honor. During Johnson's awards ceremony speech, reprinted on The American Presidency Project Web site, he cited Martin "for her courageous and effective administration of the civil rights compliance program and her exceptional contribution to racial justice in the field of education."

Rose to Political Prominence
in Virginia

In 1969 Martin became co-director of the Washington Research Project, a public-interest law firm that provided legal counsel for poor people and minorities. She returned to government work in 1972, joining the legal team of the House Committee on the District of Columbia, the agency that oversaw the affairs of the district. At the time the District of Columbia was slowly moving from federal control to local control. Martin played a key role in the development of the Home Rule Act of 1973, which allowed the district to elect its own mayor and council. She also advised on the establishment of the University of the District of Columbia. In 1978, Martin and her husband, dentist Henry S. Martin, relocated to nearby Richmond, Virginia, where she went into private law practice. She focused mainly on social issues dealing with underserved communities: the poor, minorities, women, and children. She also raised three children of her own.

Martin was called back into public service by her former Howard University classmate, Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder. He was the first African-American governor in the nation and he wanted Martin on his cabinet. She became his Secretary of Administration in 1990, the first woman and the first African American to hold the post. She was in charge of ten state departments and had responsibility for areas as diverse as employee benefits, property management, and human rights. According to the Washington Post she was also "the moving force behind the governor's African trade mission," accompanying Wilder on several trade and cultural visits to Africa. When Wilder's administration ended in 1994, Martin became a consultant to the governor of North Carolina on African trade. She also served as a member of Virginia's State Council on Higher Education and as chairwoman for the Port of Richmond. Along with Wilder, she also founded the National Slavery Museum.

Martin was recognized throughout her career for her contributions to civil and human rights. She received two honorary doctorates, Howard University's Distinguished Alumni Award, and two awards from the NAACP—the Freedom Fund Award and the Public Service Award. "I never thought of what I have done through the years as prize worthy or award winning," Martin said in her 1991 acceptance speech for the Freedom Fund Award. "I just always thought that I was simply doing my job—doing my part—pushing and shoving to help make this Nation, this State, and this Community, a better, more humane, more responsible, and more responsive place for people who can't always help themselves." By the time of her death on May 8, 2003, there was no doubt she had succeeded. A speech given during a Virginia Senate meeting commemorating her death summed up the legacy she left behind. "Those who loved her and had the privilege of knowing and working with her, will treasure the memory of her astounding intellect and her quiet persuasive leadership…[we] hereby mourn the loss of Ruby Grant Martin, a brilliant legal mind, a remarkable Virginian, and gentle lady."



Notable Black American Women, Book 2, Gale Research, 1996.


Essence, July 1972.

Washington Post, February 17, 1968; May 10, 2003.


"Celebrating the Life of Ruby Grant Martin, Former Secretary of Administration," Senate Joint Resolution No. 23, State of Virginia, http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?041+ful+SJ23 (October 25, 2004).

"Remarks at the Federal Woman's Award Ceremony," The American Presidency Project, www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=28736&st=ruby+grant&st1= (October 25, 2004).


Martin, Ruby Grant, "Reinventing Race Relations" (address given at the Richmond Urban Forum, Richmond, Virginia), December 8, 1992.

Martin, Ruby Grant, "Acceptance Speech, NAACP Freedom Fund Award," (given at the Richmond Center, Richmond, Virginia), October 23, 1991.

—Candace LaBalle

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