Growing up as a black man, the Rev. Ben Martin has seen many things change over the years in the city he’s permanently called home since 1998.
Since his return to Minden, he says the city has changed for the better, but there is still much to do. What he sees is not so much a racial divide as racism and “classism.”
“It’s more subtle, but when outsiders come to Minden who are not Southerners, one of the first things they say is, ‘This really is a racist town,’” he said. “I’m not talking about blacks who come to town. I’m talking about whites that come to town. One new pastor, a white pastor, came to town and after a while, he says, ‘This place is really racist.’”
So one of the first things Martin had the new pastor do is preach at St. Rest Baptist Church.
Following Hurricane Katrina, he debated the issue of racism in the actions that left New Orleans downtrodden and bleak. He says it wasn’t racist so much as it was class.
“The people that were not taken care of were poor people, regardless of their racial identity,” he said. “The folks who were well off could get in their cars and go, but those who were financially unable to do certain things were left, regardless of their race. Often we focus on the racial issue, but when we look at the fact of being poor, whether you’re black or white, you’re being harmed.
“Martin Luther King wasn’t killed during the civil rights demonstration,” he continued. “It was when he was organizing the poor people’s march, when he was working with the sanitation workers in Memphis (Tennessee). When he was working with poor people, both blacks and whites to come together – that’s when he was killed. Racism is a problem, but part of that problem is that it is often used as a cover for those who are in power to keep those in control fighting each other rather than uniting and being able to make change.”
He says if wages were raised and good job opportunities were to come to Minden, it would lift the city in that its citizens could make a decent living and support their families. Minden has changed for the better, he says, but there are things that could be done to unify the city.
“Among the things I said I wanted to see is a pastor’s vision,” he said, “and outside the church I said I wanted to see better housing, economic growth and people who feel better about themselves with better self-esteem.”
In his childhood years, discrimination wasn’t as bad in the black communities as much as when they’d go to “other parts of town,” he says.
“You experience discrimination because of the degree of segregation, the amount you’re exposed to, it can be limited because in your community you don’t have that,” he said. “It’s when you venture into downtown and other places or when you’re at school and you know your school doesn’t have what other schools have. For example, often the textbooks we got were the textbooks that had been used and abused and then sent on to us.”
He went on to say when they would go downtown, they couldn’t use the bathroom or drink from the same water fountains as the white community. It was when they went into the broader community that discrimination became most distinct.
“What I remember most, in Shreveport, I went to the doctor for my eyes. I went into the waiting room, and almost as soon as I got in it was my appointment time,” he said. “They called me back and led me through a maze of corridors to what I guess was the colored waiting room, which was a dimly lit room. If my eyes weren’t bad before I got there, they were going to be bad because there was hardly any lighting in there.”
Born in 1943 in West Monroe, Martin came to Minden the first time with his parents, the Rev. B.F. Martin and Hilda Eunice Mills Martin. At age 71, he has taken on the role of his late father as the pastor of St. Rest. Growing up, he said he felt pressured because of his origin.
“There’s pressure put on you because of the family that you’re from,” he said. “Because Mother was a teacher, and he was a pastor, there were certain expectations put on you as a minister’s son. It’s the typical thing that goes with being a preacher’s kid.”
Like many others during that time, he was born at home.
“They didn’t let us into hospitals back then,” he said. “All of my siblings were born at home. (My birth certificate) just says where I was born, when I was born and who my mother and father are. Not going into the hospital, the doctor didn’t bring scales to weigh me on. When you’re born at home, the doctors didn’t bring those.
I was told I was a puny kid.”
He has three siblings. He has been married to his wife, Sandy, for 47 years. They have three children and six