Roland Martin hosts and is managing editor of TV One network’s News One Now, the first daily morning news program in TV history to come from a Black perspective.
The award-winning Houston native is well known to Chicagoans as the former editor of the Chicago Defender and WVON radio talk show host before he moved on to become a contributor at CNN for six years, a nationally syndicated columnist and then TV One’s news anchor.
Now based in the D.C. area, Martin was back in Chicago over the weekend to keynote a rally at the West Side’s First Immanuel Lutheran Church celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King speaking there before his march in Marquette Park in July 1967. N’DIGO caught up with Martin at the event.
Was there anything in your childhood that indicated that you would be doing what you’re doing today?
Roland Martin: My dad worked for Amtrak and he watched news all day every day and read the paper every day. I did the exact same thing. I grew up in a family that debated issues. My grandparents – my mom’s parents – had eight kids and they lived down the street from us. We got together every Sunday, so debating was nothing and you had to go out and hold your own.
Also, my parents were very much involved in our community through our civic club; they were co-founders of that. I also read a lot – I would read 300 books a summer.
In Houston, they had a magnet school concept, so for me it came down to choosing between communications and law enforcement/criminal justice. I chose communications.
I saw you once at WVON radio talking about issues. How did you make the transition from being on the radio to having a nationally televised news show?
At the high school I went to, we had a television station, radio station and newspaper. I never only focused on one. I said I’m going to learn all the mediums. When I went to Texas A&M, same thing. People said I should only do one. I said no, I’m going to do multiple things and that’s really what it was. I did not want to get locked into one medium.
I came out of college and went to a newspaper, then transitioned to radio, then worked for the Dallas Weekly, a Black newspaper, and then later a Black website, Black Americaweb.com.
So I’ve done all different mediums. My position has always been that I never believed I needed to go work for the Washington Post to be a great journalist. I’ve always believed that you can do that wherever.
I also want to be in control of the content. I didn’t want to be in the position where I’m asking somebody can I go cover this, can I go here, can I go there? No, I’m going here.
I have run three Black newspapers and my deal was that I was in control of the content. That is important to me because the first Black newspaper was Freedom’s Journal in 1827. The lead editorial said, “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.”
So being in control of the story is important to me. I’m more concerned about that than, “Oh, I work for the New York Times.” Even though I was at CNN, I was still doing my own thing. So if CNN went, “Why did you do this story?” and they fired me, I’d just do it over here. I’ve never believed the white media was the be-all to end-all.
Well, you can tell that from watching your show.
Black network, Black show, Black focus, unapologetic.
I don’t know if you know, but you had a little reputation at the Chicago Defender for being a bit tough, a little bit closed-door. What kind of focus did you have at that time to make you be the person that you are today?
The Defender, when I got there, it had lost money for 20 straight years. People were calling it the “Chicago Offender” because of the errors. Front-page errors, photo errors. Here you had this historic newspaper that people still loved and appreciated, but was in horrible condition. That’s what it was; there’s no dancing around it.
So when I came in there, I wasn’t interested in trying to make friends. I was interested in trying to save a Black institution. What happens is, a lot of folks want you to play nice. My deal was, no, we’re trying to save this.
I remember when I wanted us to move (from the historic Defender building at 24th and Michigan). People protested me. They were like, no, we have to save the building.
It would have cost us more than $8 million to refurbish the building. The whole company wasn’t worth $8 million. So it was stupid. People were protesting me outside the building. Other people inside were scared. I went right outside and stared them down. They were passing out pamphlets saying, “Boycott the Defender” and I was passing out subscription cards.
“Nothing changes unless people are willing to fight for change.”
Some people were ticked off because I came in and I was changing how we ran things. So yes, I’m going to be tough. Here’s the thing for me that’s important, though – I don’t allow someone to say, well it is a Black newspaper.
My demand is, you’re going to bring the same work ethic, the same respect to the Chicago Defender as you would the Chicago Tribune. If you’re at the Defender, you’re going to respect this. And I did not let people externally disrespect us.
What do you mean by that?
Same thing. People going, oh well, that’s a weekly, that’s the Defender. No, you’re going to respect me and my staffers the same way you’re going to respect somebody at the Sun-Times and Tribune. You have to have that attitude.
When Hillary Clinton came to Dallas at the MLK Center, which is right across the street catacorner from the Dallas Weekly, my paper, I went in, went early. They were all set up. I asked who was shooting (photographing) the event. They said “the pool.” I said who’s in the pool? They said the Star-Telegram, Dallas Morning News, AP, UPI. I said, ain’t no way in hell y’all can come to the Black community and nobody Black is going to be in that pool.
I said, no you are not coming to south Dallas and a Black paper is 100 yards away from here – our building (Dallas Weekly) – and nobody Black is going to be in this pool shooting photos. That’s demanding respect.
Sometimes when I watch the show, it kinda hurts my feelings a little bit.
Because, man, if you watch a Megyn Kelly or the guy you always call out – Bill O’Reilly – I feel like you’re working twice as hard to get your message out as them. They always say stuff with such certainty and boldness that is seriously racially undertoned. I feel like, why don’t they talk to you. Do your feelings ever get hurt?
First of all, I’ve been on Megyn’s show the last three weeks and I’m going to be on her show Wednesday.
What about them coming to your show?
We’re still on. I don’t need them to come on my show. You have to understand that I will take a message anywhere. I’m not afraid to debate anybody; it doesn’t matter to me. If three million people are watching Megyn Kelly and I go to Megyn Kelly’s show, that’s three million people who don’t watch TV One, but are still watching me do what I do. That’s legit.
So I don’t need somebody to necessarily come to us, because they’re not going to come to us. They say, “Oh, you’re too small (at TV One).” I say, “Fine, I’ll come to you…and kick your behind on your show and show you how this works.”
We have Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as our presidential candidates. I know you’re a man of faith, but why do you think God would give us those two candidates, when one is a psycho racist and the other is perceived to be a huge liar and untrustworthy.
It’s not a question of why did God give us this. You skipped over the most important thing: It’s called free will. Free will means that you get to make choices.
But even Bernie Sanders kind of got the shaft.
No he didn’t. Bernie Sanders was not a Democrat. Bernie Sanders was an independent who decided to run for president as a Democrat because he knew he could not run as an independent. Democrats were saying, dude you’re not in our party. That’s like somebody coming to your house and saying, “We need to move this couch around.
Back to your question, the American people get to make choices. Republican voters chose Donald Trump. Democratic voters chose Hillary Clinton. There are no perfect choices. There are people who didn’t like Obama. Said he was inexperienced, he was too young, why should you vote for him. So you’re always going to have that.
Last time I was in Chicago, I was in a hotel bar waiting on some food and this guy was like, I’m a Republican and I can’t work for Hillary. I said, dude stop. You should sit down and say, what are my top 10 issues. Then find out where Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton stand on each one of those issues. Whoever gets the most checks is who you vote for.
I know you’re raising your six nieces who are not your biological children. What would you say to women when it comes to them just really being assertive with their voice? I know a lot of women are head of the Black Lives Matter organization. What can you say to women that would help them to be a little bit more proactive and bold when it comes to the things that are important to them?
What I would say to a woman is the same thing I’d say to a man, and that is, what do you care about. And then, be willing to fight for that. It doesn’t matter what it is. Frederick Douglass said power concedes nothing without a demand. That’s the same attitude that I have.
From the time the first Africans came here in August 1619, Black folks have had to fight for everything we’ve gotten. That’s not stopping. So you have to be willing to say, this is what I care about, I’m going to commit myself to this cause and that’s what I’m working on. So whether you are a woman or man, it doesn’t matter. You still have to be in the game because nothing changes unless people are willing to fight for change.