Civil-rights leader and activist led the way on fair housing and equal employment.
When Matthew Little moved to Minneapolis from the segregated South in 1948, he thought there might be better opportunities in the North. However, like many African-Americans of his generation, he soon learned that racism and discrimination still limited employment and other opportunities.
Fortunately for Minnesotans, he decided to stay anyway and go to work for equal opportunity and justice. His quiet leadership over more than five decades helped make this region a better place to live. Little died Sunday at his St. Paul home at age 92. His legacy of fighting for fairness, equality and racial reconciliation lives on.
I interviewed Little in July for a piece about the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. As the then-president of the Minneapolis NAACP, he led the Minnesota delegation to the historic march where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream’’ speech. Little led the local civil-rights group for several decades, retiring in 1993.
During his years as a civil-rights leader and activist, he led a campaign that won the state’s first fair housing law. He was active in DFL politics and a strong supporter of school desegregation. And he negotiated to open more employment opportunities in government, business and nonprofits. A gracious gentleman, who was quick to smile and laugh, Little served on multiple boards over the years. And often his powers of persuasion helped convince the groups he worked with to embrace diversity, inclusion and equal rights.
Though he appreciated the equal-rights progress that had been made during his lifetime, he still talked about the work that remains.
“There has been progress, no doubt about it …,’’ he said during the July interview. "I never believed we were in a ‘postracial’ society. We cannot fold our books and say this is it. There is still a need for the Urban Leagues and NAACPs. We still need to work on getting jobs and good education for our people. It’s a gradual process that no single thing can solve.
“Just as I have seen progress in my lifetime, there will be more progress in the next 50 years. The battle goes on. When I get discouraged, I think back to that day in 1963 [at the March on Washington], and it gives me courage to go forward.”
Minnesotans should reflect on how Little’s leadership drove many of the changes we enjoy today. His legacy gives us the strength and courage to assure even more civil-rights progress in the future.
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