Raney: Martin Fleming is the people's judge

During the Great Depression, Judge Martin A. Fleming, Chattanooga city court judge, gathered his court robes and went to work. He became the "champion of the underdog" and one of the city's most influential leaders. A man of quick wit and unfailing sense of humor, he frequently turned young men from a path of crime to a useful place in society by speaking words of encouragement and tempering justice with mercy and humor.

In the depths of the depression, he secured the building at 126th 10th Street (now Chattanooga's Office of Internal Audit)and established the "Good Samaritan Inn," otherwise known as the "Fleming Flop House." Merchant friends contributed food and clothing, and local doctors offered services. His Flop House was a first and last stop for many Chattanoogans.

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When Judge Fleming left the bench after 38 years in 1947, citizens of all races and classes paid tribute. Local attorney C. A. Noone, said, "You've served your generation. I have always pictured you as a great big heart surrounded by a lot of man." The Chattanooga NAACP representative, C. A. Craig, offered his appreciation. "We will miss youand we hope you will stand by for us in the future." Judge Fleming responded, "as long as I live." (He returned to practice law with Berke & Fleming.)

Born in 1878 on East 9th Street (now M.L. King Boulevard), Martin Fleming was the son of Irish immigrant Pat Fleming and Anne O'Donnell. When he was one year old, the Yellow Fever Epidemic took the lives of his mother and two siblings. The father and son survived at the Rogers Farm on the east side of Missionary Ridge.

Pat Fleming, a plumber, gave his son a respect for education and a love of politics. A member of Sts. Peter and Paul Church, young Martin began his schooling at Notre Dame and graduated from Vanderbilt University Law College in 1899. He first practiced with Judge Lewis Shepherd and then joined the law firm of James B. Frazier, Sr. When Frazier campaigned for Tennessee governor, he took Martin on the campaign trail, giving him his first venture into Tennessee politics. When Frazier won, the young lawyer was appointed to the Hamilton County election commission. Becoming known for both his political sagacity and quick wit, he was once questioned by an opponent at a state Democratic convention about his stand on the sensitive issue of tariffs. Fleming retorted, "Well, since you have asked, I will answer. My views of the tariff are that if it is too high, lower it, and if it is too low, 'higher' it." He was overwhelmingly elected.

Martin Fleming challenged Chattanooga's political machine and ran for city judge in 1906. Battling Judge W. F. McGaughy and M. A. Doughty for the office, he carried all precincts. Fleming subsequently won every municipal election except 1923, when the Ku Klux Klan at the height of its influence crusaded against Jews, Catholics, blacks, and immigrants. Martin Fleming, a Catholic, lost. By the next city election in 1927, some of his most vocal opponents in 1923 had become his strongest supporters, and he was back in office.

Judge Fleming saw many types during his time on the bench and commented "I have a firm belief that there are a great deal more people who intend and want to do what is right than there those who intend to do wrong. I would say that 10 percent of all the people who get into jail want no law and don't intend to abide by the law; then another 10 per cent will abide by the law if forced to do so and that 80 percent respect the law and intend to abide by it." He had a "knack for separating the wolves from the sheep" and did not offer respite for any he considered habitual criminals. "Habitual criminals should be neither paroled nor pardoned. Any time we fail to put them up permanently, society is neglected."

Judge Fleming believed in giving "a last fair chance." He would have provided convicted moonshiner Joe Miles an alternative to jail if possible. Joe had been encouraged to produce fine liquor and only needed another occupation. He described his approach to the law as liberal, hoping to pull a man away from crime rather than push him into it by harsh sentencing.

Suzette Raney (sraney@lib.chattanooga.lib) is the archivist at the Chattanooga Public Library. For more, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.

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