Months After a Brutal Day in Charlottesville, a Tender Wedding

Posted May 19, 2018 12:04 a.m. EDT

Since Aug. 12, 2017, Marcus Martin has lost anonymity, a close friend and, at times, his coping skills.

Martin’s red-and-white footwear will be more familiar to many than his name.

He is the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph, taken by Ryan M. Kelly, in Charlottesville, Virginia, during the Unite the Right rally, which was organized by white nationalists protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee.

In the photo, Martin is midair, spread-eagle with his back parallel to the hot Virginia asphalt, after being struck by a Dodge Charger driven by James Alex Fields, who would later be charged with second-degree murder.

Marissa Blair, 28, was inches away when the photo was taken, narrowly escaping the car barreling toward them. In a moment of clarity amid chaos, Martin, 27, pushed her out of the way to take the brunt of the collision himself. The impact broke his ankle and shattered his lower leg. “Later he was like, ‘You know I saved your life, right?'” Blair said.

To hear him tell it, she had already saved his.

Before Martin found himself in the news for being a victim and a hero on what he still calls “that horrific day,” his name had made the rounds in a series of less favorable news stories. In 2013, he was sentenced to a five-year prison term for his role in an armed robbery near his home in Shipman, Virginia. He was released in 2016.

“I made a lot of bad choices when I was young,” he said. “I made my life harder than it should have been.”

Blair’s youth, spent with her parents and three brothers over the bridge from Shipman in Amherst, also in Nelson County, Virginia, was drama-free by comparison. But their paths had intersected. Blair’s mother, Soronya Hudson, and Martin’s mother, Kimberly Martin, were schoolmates in Nelson County, graduating in the same class in 1982. And Hudson and Martin’s uncle, Timmy Martin, were friends as children.

But although Martin remembers seeing Blair around her neighborhood on childhood visits to a friend who lived next door, Blair didn’t notice Martin until around 2011, when she was finishing up at James Madison University.

“I’m sure I had seen him in passing,” she said. “His sister and I graduated high school the same year,” in 2007. “But I remember one day I went over to somebody’s house, and he was there, and I thought he was so handsome. I went home and told my mother I met this gorgeous man.”

The gorgeous man would show up again that year when her family threw her a graduation party. “Marcus’ uncle was the DJ, and Marcus came with him. We locked eyes, but we were both with somebody else,” she said. They would lock eyes a second time, not long before Martin’s arrest, at a mutual friend’s house in Charlottesville. He was putting together a crib for his newborn daughter, Izabella, now 5.

“I was like, ‘Oh, he’s got a kid,'” she said. “I was still in a relationship and he had just gotten out of one. So it wasn’t like we were going to run off together. But there was definitely something there.” Next she heard, though, he was behind bars. “There was the usual small-town talk about what had happened,” she said.

She didn’t pay attention. By then, she was busy mapping out a career. In 2011, Blair enrolled at Charlotte School of Law. By the time Martin was released from prison, she had earned her J.D. When she finally saw him again, at a Charlottesville mall University of Virginia students call “the Corner,” their few but intense encounters had stopped taking up space in her daydreams.

“And then it all went down at Rapture,” Martin said, referring to a Charlottesville nightclub. In October 2016, Blair and Martin were single and separately struggling — Blair with saving money to move out of a house in Amherst she was sharing with her younger brother, Cameron, and Martin with the baggage that comes with a criminal record. Both were at the club one night looking for a distraction.

“I saw her and I was just like, ‘There’s the pretty lady again,'” Martin said. “Next thing I know I’m sitting on a bar stool, and I turn around, and she’s there. Marissa has these eyes that are sometimes hazel, sometimes green. She looked at me and I wanted to tell her, ‘Stop.’ Because those eyes, they do something to you.”

He walked her to her car that night, hopeful but unsure she would want to see him again. “I knew she knew I had been incarcerated,” he said. “I wasn’t sure she would want to talk to me anymore.”

Soon enough, though, they were flirting on social media. His doubts were fully dissolved when Blair, then a paralegal at Miller Law Group in Charlottesville, made a spur-of-the-moment visit to Martin, who at the time was working as a houseman at the Cavalier Inn.

“It just seemed really natural,” Blair said. “Nothing was forced.” Their first official date came days later, when Martin took Blair to a University of Virginia football game. Friends had reservations about her seeing a felon, but she didn’t care.

“He had been rehabilitated,” she said. “He didn’t seem like a bad guy at all.” Within the space of a handful of outings, Blair and Martin were in an all-consuming kind of love.

“I didn’t ever want to be away from her,” Martin said. “My life with Marissa was just so much easier than it had been.”

His love for Blair was amplified by the love he was starting to feel from her family: Garnell O’Gene Blair Jr., Marissa Blair’s father, was an early supporter of their relationship and fast became a father figure to Martin, who doesn’t know his own father. And her mother, Hudson, was just as supportive. “People make mistakes,” she said. “I knew Marcus was a good person. Whenever Marissa was around him, she was glowing.” By winter, Martin felt more grounded than ever before in his life. He moved into the house Blair and her brother were sharing.

“It was all sort of like, let the good times roll,” Blair said. “We had such a great time together.” They hiked local spots; they stayed home, raiding a cabinet she kept stocked with Little Debbie snacks, candy bars and Oreos to satisfy Martin’s after-dinner sweet tooth.

By the end of 2016, Blair was sure Martin was going to propose.

But Martin, who wanted to propose, was having trouble gathering his courage. “I kept thinking, ‘What if I ask her and she says no? I’ll feel like a fool,'” he said. On Jan. 31, 2017, he showed up, sweaty, at Miller Law Group with a twinkling diamond ring he bought for her at a Kay Jewelers. As proposals go, there have been smoother.

“I’ll never forget the way he was acting,” Blair said. “He was so nervous, he was sweating bullets.” As Martin got down on one knee, he didn’t notice a colleague of Blair’s, standing by the door waiting for a legal file.

Martin let his rehearsed words rip: “He was like, ‘You know I love you, right? You are everything to me. I don’t want to go another day calling you my girlfriend. Will you marry me?'”

Blair took a deep breath. “I made him step outside my office and do it all over again,” she said. This time without her colleague in the doorway. Martin’s second attempt was perfect, and she immediately said yes.

Martin had his reasons for proposing at the office. They included Courtney Commander and Heather Heyer, who also worked at the firm and were among the couple’s closest friends. Several months after the foursome celebrated Martin and Blair’s engagement, Commander, the most politically active of the group, would recruit the couple and Heyer to join her as counterprotesters at the Aug. 12 rally.

“Everybody felt strongly about what was going on,” Commander said. “Marissa and Marcus said they wanted to be there, but I wasn’t sure they would come.” Martin, still on parole and working a new job as a landscaper, told her he wanted to steer clear of trouble. She knew Blair wouldn’t come without him. But when Commander attended a July 8 march of the Ku Klux Klan in Charlottesville and sent Blair, Martin and Heyer video of the awful goings-on, they were inspired to join her in her next counterprotest.

Blair and Martin remember the early part of the rally on that Saturday afternoon as peaceful and almost enjoyable. Until 1:41 p.m. The violence, and Martin’s protective shove, “came out of nowhere,” Blair said. Just after the melee, she was unable to find Martin amid the terrified crowd. Cellphone video captured her frantic reaction. “Marcus!” she screams, over and over.

If the minutes before she found Martin bloodied and unable to walk were painful, the minutes afterward would deliver fresh agony. Martin and Blair were at the hospital when they learned that, while Commander had managed to escape the raging car, Heyer, 32, had died.

“I sank to my knees,” Blair recalled when she heard the news.

In a tidier world, the aftermath of Aug. 12 would have found Martin strengthened by the praise his act of valor won him.

In the real one, it temporarily cost him his landscaping income (a GoFundMe account raised about $61,000 to help with his health expenses). It also cost the hard-won feelings of safety and security he had cultivated in his relationship with Blair.

“You’d think it would have brought us closer together as a couple, and it some ways it did,” Blair said. “But before Aug. 12, Marcus and I had had one argument. After Aug. 12 we started having six, seven, eight arguments. It wasn’t like us.” The arguments were dumb, they acknowledged. “Like, if she ate the last cookie and left an empty box, I would just blow up,” Martin said. “And I would cry,” Blair added.

For months, they both visited therapists. “It helped,” Martin said. “Marissa and I realized life is too short for little petty arguments.”

On the afternoon of May 12, on the sprawling lawn of Walden Hall, an estate in Reva, Virginia, Martin and Blair were married under blue skies before 150 friends and family. Blair’s seven attendants included her brother Adrian Lombre. Her brother Dasan Hunt walked her down the grassy aisle to an altar draped in purple wisteria. The bridesmaids, including her maid of honor, Commander, wore long dresses in shades of lavender. Martin’s five groomsmen and best woman, Whitley Jones, wore dark suits with purple accents. The color scheme was in honor of Heyer’s favorite color.

The recording artist Major began the ceremony by singing “Why I Love You” as Blair walked toward her groom.

“I wanted to be here because their story gripped my heart,” Major said. “When I heard that they wanted to walk down the aisle to my song, I got on a plane.” Christina Moore, the wedding planner, had held onto Major’s contact information after meeting him at a Virginia wedding she orchestrated years earlier. She arranged for the surprise.

Before the officiant, the Rev. Bill Malbon, a Baptist minister from Richmond, began his short ceremony, Susan Bro, a guest and the mother of Heyer, was called to the altar to release a handful of butterflies. Several flew away, but one nestled into the folds of Blair’s dress and stayed.

“We named that one Heather,” Bro said.


When: May 12, 2018

Where: Walden Hall in Reva, Virginia

Love Wins: Bella Giornata Events, a local company, gave the all-expenses-paid wedding for Blair and Martin. “I contacted some vendors I work with often and asked if they may be willing to donate their services,” said the founder, Christina Moore. “I knew we could send the message that love wins, not hate.” In all, more than a dozen businesses, including a florist and a men’s stylist, pitched in. The words “love wins” appeared on wedding décor including iced-cookie favors.

Remembering Bean: Blair’s father, nicknamed Bean because he was a vegetarian, died in March, another blow for the couple. But Cameron Blair, Marissa Blair’s younger brother, said Martin had already been officially welcomed into the family before he died. “My dad felt like he didn’t have three sons, he had four sons,” Adrian Lombre said. “He loved Marcus.”

Major Surprise: A reception was held in a barn on the property before dinner was served under a white tent. “We are one,” Major said before singing a new song, “Better With You in It.” “Today is about love.”

Floating on Air: Blair’s Sottero & Midgley dress was donated by Urban Set Bride in Richmond. “I told them I wanted to feel like a princess, so it has a big poofy skirt, like Cinderella,” she said. “The best part is that the bodice is all Swarovski crystals. Marcus loves sparkly things.” She plans to alter the dress so she can wear it again. “Maybe for our first anniversary,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m floating on air.”