One by one, the state’s top political and community leaders stepped to the podium of a Minneapolis church on Saturday to honor the late civil rights giant Matthew Little, who died last Sunday at 92. He was lauded for directing the Minneapolis NAACP in the 1950s, desegregating the city’s fire department, improving fair housing and leading the Minnesota delegation to the March on Washington in 1963.
Toward the end of the 2½-hour memorial celebration, one of Little’s 14 grandchildren, Damani Bediako, recalled how he was short of funds during the summer after his freshman year at college. So, Little paid him to do some landscaping. They had deep conversations, like best friends.
“Once I was trying to carry a big old log and couldn’t and I said, ‘Grandpa, it’s too heavy.’ He moved me out of the way and carried it himself when he was 87.”
The story prompted laughs and applause from a crowd that poured into the Shiloh Temple International Ministries in north Minneapolis.
“Our North Star State is missing one of its brightest lights,” said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, leading off a string of high-profile speakers, including Gov. Mark Dayton, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, former Minneapolis mayors Don Fraser, Sharon Sayles Belton and R.T. Rybak, new Mayor Betsy Hodges, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and others.
They recalled how Little moved to Minnesota after serving in World War II, hoping to escape racism in North Carolina — only to be shut out of a job with the Minneapolis Fire Department despite acing the written and physical parts of the exam. Three white retired captains gave him a 74.5 score on the oral portion of the test when a 75 was required for hiring, Dayton said.
“The result was the flame of civil rights activism that burned strongly with Matt for the rest of his life,” the governor said. “The word flame is actually inaccurate. Matt had more of a blowtorch.”
One-third of the Minneapolis Fire Department is now staffed by people of color.
Rybak, who said he’s feeling great after a recent heart attack, recalled the tornado that struck north Minneapolis in the summer of 2011. Kids in the neighborhood were shocked and scared, Rybak said.
“Then the firetruck pulled up and off the truck came people who looked like them and got who they were,” Rybak said, pointing to Little’s work breaking the racial barrier at the department. “Matt’s wasn’t always the loudest voice in the room, but he was able to hear all those voices and somehow find a way to move them together in a common direction.”
Josie Johnson, a longtime friend and ally who joined Little in Washington when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech, urged those gathered to funnel their energy and grief toward the community’s children.
“I believe Matthew would beg that we renew our commitment to our children and fight for justice and morality,” she said.
Sayles Belton recalled first meeting Little when she was 16 and later, facing his “wrath” after she became the city’s first black and female mayor.
“He planted that seed in me, encouraging young people to take leadership roles,” she said.
Ellison, Minnesota’s first person of color elected to Congress, was a student at the University of Minnesota, protesting Minneapolis police conduct, when he first met Little. Someone challenged Little at a meeting, wondering why the established civil rights leaders weren’t leading the effort.
Little responded by saying, “I really like the idea of these young people stepping forward to make a difference,” Ellison recalled. “He served in an egoless way.”
Said Klobuchar: “His easy laugh and gentle demeanor belied his moral strength and fierce sense of justice.”
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767