Matthew Little’s rise to prominence in Minnesota’s civil rights movement began with a simple quest: to get a job on the all-white Minneapolis Fire Department.
In the early 1950s, the young black World War II veteran passed the written test and scored top grades on the physical exam, but failed the oral interview.
He sought out one of the three retired fire officials who had interviewed him to ask what he did wrong.
Explaining that firefighters lived in close quarters, the man told him, “I don’t think it was going to work.”
Little was angry, but undeterred, said his daughter Titilayo Bediako.
“That’s one of the things that spurred him to get involved in the civil rights movement,” she said Monday. “He said it made him mad — it made him really mad.”
Little, who died Sunday at age 92 of complications from pneumonia, joined the Minneapolis NAACP, soon became its president and for the next half-century played a pivotal role in many civil rights struggles that played out in Minnesota.
“He was certainly one of the most important persons in the realm of social justice that this community has produced,” says Mahmoud El-Kati, professor emeritus at Macalester College and himself a longtime civil rights activist. “He was always out front.”
Little, who had a conciliatory style but a firm conviction on matters of equality, managed to bridge many elements of the political spectrum. He was a friend of mayors, U.S. senators and members of the business community, but nonetheless was respected and consulted by young civil rights firebrands.
“He was someone I dearly, dearly loved,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. She said she met the longtime DFL activist when she was working on one of Walter Mondale’s campaigns, and he stood beside her when she announced her first candidacy for Hennepin County attorney. She later withdrew after Mike Freeman re-entered the race.
“The thing about him was that he took on real hard causes, but always did it with such optimism, and never in a negative way,” Klobuchar said. “He was always optimistic that things would get done.”
That included desegregating the Minneapolis Fire Department. Civil rights activists Ron Edwards said he and another activist, William Smith, were approached by two deputy fire chiefs, concerned by a lack of progress in integrating the department. “They encouraged the black community to take it up,” Edwards recalled.
Edwards and Smith sought out Little, who had had been pressing the NAACP to take action. The fire department’s failure to hire Little became part of a class-action lawsuit that led to the desegregation of the department. “It was [Little’s] perseverance that led to the integration,” said Edwards, who later chaired a federal oversight board to ensure the department was integrated.
One of nine children, Little was born in Washington, N.C. His father was a factory laborer and his mother a homemaker. He attended Washington Colored High School and graduated from North Carolina A&T, a historically black school in Greensboro, N.C., in 1943. He immediately entered the Army and was assigned to an all-black infantry regiment. He suffered a concussion when U.S. troops landed in the Aleutian Islands.
Little left the Army in 1946 and went to Washington, D.C., hoping to attend medical school at Howard University. GIs were pouring out of the service and there were too many applicants and too few openings, he said. In 1947, he moved to Milwaukee to work in an auto body plant.
He didn’t like Milwaukee, so in 1948, he went to the railroad station. “Where do you want to go?” the clerk asked. Little said he flipped a coin — heads for Minneapolis, tails for Denver. It came up heads.
In Minneapolis, Little said, he found blacks could not stay at major hotels and there were unwritten rules that kept them from many jobs, much like the South where Jim Crow laws legalized segregation.
It surprised Little. “Minnesota was supposed to be a place where this kind of Jim Crow discrimination did not exist,” said Bediako, his daughter.
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.