Martin moved to New York to pursue a career in acting. She was a Broadway character actress for many decades, debuting in Orson Welles’ production of Native Son in 1941. She appeared in at least a dozen Broadway shows, including Jean Genet’s The Blacks, the musical Raisin from 1973 to 1975, Ossie Davis’ Purlie Victorious (and later the musical version, which was called Purlie), The Amen Corner and Tennessee Williams’ Period of Adjustment. She was an original member of the American Negro Theater.
Martin became widely known later in life due to her roles in popular television series, which brought her a large audience. She had a recurring role as Wanda on the television series Good Times, and later as the neighbor Pearl Shay on the television sitcom 227, which lasted from 1985 until 1990. She also played on the short-lived sitcoms Baby, I’m Back (as mother in-law, Luzelle) and That’s My Mama.