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Continued: Matthew Little stood up for civil rights in Minnesota for 60 years

  • Article by: RANDY FURST , Star Tribune
  • Last update: January 27, 2014 - 11:19 PM

Josie Johnson, who later became a University of Minnesota regent, came to Minnesota in 1956. “He invited me to join him at the Minneapolis NAACP,” she recalled. One of the big issues then was redlined housing that limited which neighborhoods were open to blacks. “We had two designated areas where people could live — south Minneapolis and a section of north Minneapolis,” Johnson said. Elsewhere, property was considered off limits to blacks and housing loans were unavailable.

With Little’s strong support, Johnson lobbied the Legislature to pass fair housing laws. A strong advocate was State Sen. Don Fraser. Little supported Fraser, who later went to Congress and eventually became mayor of Minneapolis. They became good friends, often playing tennis.

In 1963, Little led a Minnesota delegation to Washington, D.C., for the civil rights march where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech. Minneapolis Mayor Arthur Naftalin was at first hesitant about supporting the march, Little recalled. “I finally convinced him there would not be violence and he became a supporter and went on the march.”

In the 1970s, Little approached The Way, a black activist community center on the North Side, and became a board member. Spike Moss, a Way leader, later said that while he himself was part of a group that “wanted everything now,” Little was a member of an older group “that already knew that white America wasn’t going to do that. While we were spinning our wheels, they were steadily chipping away, getting things done.”

Little’s activism involved other causes. Dave Roe, retired president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, recalled Monday how he rode in a bus with Little to Washington, D.C., to protest President Ronald Reagan’s firing of striking air traffic control workers. In 1991 and 1992, Little marched with the American Indian Movement outside the Metrodome to protest the use of Indian names as mascots.

“He supported women’s rights, gay rights,” says Bediako. “He was about civil and human rights for everyone.”

Little and his first wife, Sylvia, were divorced in 1974 and he later remarried. In 1993 he retired as president of the NAACP, but Bill Davis, a close friend, who worked with him at the NAACP, said Little continued to be involved in many political activities and meetings, besides spending time with his second wife, Lucille, and playing in tennis tournaments around the country.

“I don’t think I can ever retire as long as I’m black,” he told the Star Tribune. “And I think I’ll be black the rest of my life.”

In addition to his wife, Little is survived by daughters Titalyo Bediako and Kinshasha Kambui, both of Minneapolis, Mathea Smith of Des Moines and Azaniah Little of Seattle; a son, Stanley Little of Minneapolis; brothers James Little of Charlotte, N.C., Arthur Little of New York and Robert Little of Maryland, plus 14 grandchildren.

A community celebration of Little’s life will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Shiloh Temple International Ministries, 1201 W. Broadway, Minneapolis. Doors open at 10 a.m.

Star Tribune librarian John Wareham contributed to this report. Randy Furst • 612-673-4224

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  • From left, Curtis Chivers, Dale McIver, Matthew Little, Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Marjorie Turner and Don Fraser gathered for the March on Washington in 1963.

  • Matthew Little spoke at a State Capitol rally marking the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King.

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