Today: Chief Phillip Martin, who against seemingly impossible odds, led the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians from poverty to prosperity.
When Phillip Martin became Chief in 1979, he confronted grinding poverty, short life spans and a Tribal unemployment rate of a staggering 75%. Despair and hopelessness was every where and most of those who had jobs were sharecroppers or did manual labor.
The Choctaw school system was dismal as was their run-down, barebones housing. The Tribe appeared to have no future.
Yet the Choctaw were once a great Tribal nation whose lands occupied what are now the states of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. But in 1831, the U.S. government completed the seizing of their lands so that white settlers could have it.
The U.S. military marched the first of the Choctaw well over a thousand miles to what today is the state of Oklahoma in what history calls the “Trail of Tears,” because on the journey, thousands of men, women and children died from frozen temperatures, starvation or disease.
A smattering of Choctaw was allowed to stay on a Mississippi reservation. But no longer could they live as their ancestors had for centuries and they were as victimized by segregation as black people were. They were viewed by many whites as “useless red niggers.”
Until Chief Martin’s arrival, the Mississippi Choctaws never recovered. But he was a can-do kind of person. A World War ll veteran, Phillip saw the devastation of Germany and he watched as the German people rebuilt their war ravaged nation into a preeminent global leader.
Phillip believed if the Germans could do that so could the Choctaw people, and he knew that from his own experiences in life.
Born in 1926, Phillip was one of six children. His father Willie supported the family by working as a janitor until one horrible day, a hit and run driver killed him. Without Willie, the family was left to struggle on welfare, confronted by hunger and deprivation.
In desperation, his mother Mary sent Phillip to a distant Cherokee boarding school when he was 13 and he joined the Army at 19. There he became a radar technician. After the War, he enlisted in the Air Force where over 10 years, he rose to Staff Sergeant.
After his discharge in 1955, before returning to the Reservation, Phillip used the G.I. Bill to further his education, becoming an electrician.
But starting 45 years ago, Phillip got involved in Tribal affairs and took control in 1979 when he was elected Chief. To transform the destiny of the Mississippi Choctaw, there needed to be an economic revolution.
This revolution would be especially difficult to accomplish because the Tribe was based in the worst pocket of poverty in the poorest U.S. state.
But Phillip didn’t let it stop him. He convinced the local city Philadelphia, Mississippi to build an 80 acre industrial park on the Pearl River Reservation and then he helped recruit prime tenants such as American Greeting Cards and General Motors to occupy it.
This created jobs and opportunities for advancement. But Chief Martin was just getting started as over the years he launched more than a dozen Tribal owned businesses.
Among them is the Pearl River Resort, which includes two major hotels/casinos, golf courses and a water theme park. Today, the Resort employs over 7,000 people, including non-Choctaws.
Across all their businesses, the 10,000 member Mississippi Choctaw have created over 9,000 jobs and have become one of Mississippi’s biggest employers.
But the story gets even better. The Tribe uses revenue from its diverse businesses to invest in medical care, quality suburban style housing, cultural preservation and to provide their people with a first rate school system.
They also provide police and fire protection, a court system, a senior citizen center, and through the Choctaw Tribal Scholarship Program, they offer scholarships for Tribal members to attend any U.S. college or university they choose.
But after many years of service, in 2007, at the age of 81, Phillip stepped down as Chief, and he passed away recently at 83. He is survived by his wife of 54 years Bonnie, a Choctaw, and their two daughters, five grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
Chief Martin is also survived by the thousands of people the Tribe employs, thousands more the Tribe’s vendors employ and by the state of Mississippi, the recipient of one of its most successful business enterprises.
And he is survived most of all by the Mississippi Choctaw, a Tribe with a future that may one day become as proud as its distant past.
Success Tip of the Week:
As Chief Martin inherited one of the most dismal situations in America and through imagination, hard work and determination uplifted his Tribe and the state, so can you and I attain great accomplishments, if we are equally determined.
In the next KazanToday:
How a sideline business turned a man into a multi-millionaire.