Phillip Martin dies at 83; Choctaw chief lifted tribe out of poverty

Associated Press

Phillip Martin, a longtime chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians who lifted the tribe from stifling poverty with casinos and other businesses, died Thursday at a hospital in Jackson, Miss., after suffering a stroke a few days earlier. He was 83.

During Martin’s 28-year tenure, the tribe constructed an industrial park and the $750-million Pearl River Resort, with two casinos, a golf club and a water park, on its land in rural east-central Mississippi. He was praised for creating thousands of jobs. He also set up a scholarship that pays 100% of college costs for tribal youth.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour praised Martin’s leadership.

“His attention to economic development while preserving the cultural aspects of Native American life in Mississippi will be long remembered,” Barbour said.

Elected chief in 1979, Martin promoted economic development long before the casinos opened. In 1981, he persuaded his hometown of Philadelphia, Miss., to issue bonds to lure American Greetings to an industrial park on the Pearl River Reservation. It employed up to 250 people at its peak.

In later years as chief, he faced criticism that he did not have enough tribal members in upper-level management positions. There were also complaints of a long wait for new housing and assertions that tribal schools couldn’t compete with the nearby public school system.

Martin was born in Philadelphia, Miss., in 1926, the third of six children. The family home on the reservation was destroyed by a fire when he was a toddler, and his father was later killed by a hit-and-run driver. Martin was sent to a boarding school in North Carolina and after high school served for a decade in the Air Force. He began his career in tribal governance in 1957.

Survivors include his wife of 54 years, Bonnie Kate Bell; two daughters; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.