Martin attended public schools in Tarrant and earned a degree from the Birmingham School of Law. In 1937, he began working in the petroleum industry. In July 1941, he enlisted in the Army and subsequently commanded an artillery battery in the Third Army under General George S. Patton, Jr, in the European Theater of Operations of World War II. An intelligence officer in the Army of Occupation, he was discharged as a Major in March 1946. He returned to Alabama to work as an oil products distributor.
Martin was at first a conservative Democrat, but he joined the GOP to challenge incumbent Lister Hill for his U.S. Senate seat in the 1962 general election. Martin lost to Hill by 6,019 votes (49.1 percent for Martin to 50.9 percent for Hill), the best Republican showing in a statewide race in Alabama since Reconstruction.
Martin was elected to the House of Representatives in the 89th Congress in 1964, the year of Goldwater's landslide in Alabama which saw several other Republicans elected to the House. He gave up the House seat after one term, however, in order to run for Governor of Alabama in 1966. Martin was overwhelmingly defeated by Lurleen Wallace, wife of sitting Governor George Wallace. He even ran behind his ticket-mate, Republican John Grenier, who was unsuccessfully challenging U.S. Senator John Sparkman.
Martin also ran for the Senate in 1972 but lost the Republican nomination to former Postmaster General Winton Blount, who in turn was easily defeated by Sparkman. Martin ran again in 1978, first against the Alabama Supreme Court Justice Howell Heflin, the Democratic nominee to succeed the retiring Sparkman. He switched races to face Donald W. Stewart to fill the unexpired term of James Allen, who died in office. However, Stewart, who first beat Allen's widow, Maryon Pittman Allen, in the primary, went on to defeat Martin, who then returned to work in the petroleum industry.
In 1987, Guy Hunt, the first Republican governor of Alabama since Reconstruction, appointed Martin commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. In that position, he helped to establish the Forever Wild land conservation program, funded by revenues from offshore oil and gas leases.
Martin was married to Patricia H. Martin and had two children. Before his death in 2017 at the age of 99, he was among the oldest living former members of Congress. The James D. Martin Wildlife Park at U. S. Highway 411 in Gadsden was named in his honor.
|U.S. Congressman, Alabama 7th District