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Today’s historic Electoral College vote: A big day for civil rights leader Matt Little

When Matt Little joins the state’s nine other electors to casts their votes for Barack Obama at noon today, he’ll be engulfed in a lifetime of painful memories of  black Americans’ struggle for equality.

Matt Little
Minnesota Historical Society
Matt Little

Sometime before noon today, Matt Little will arrive at the state Capitol to cast his electoral college vote for Barack Obama.

Little won’t be arriving alone. There will be nine other electors on hand to cast their votes for Obama in a process that will be taking place across the country, the final formality in Obama’s election victory.

But Little won’t only be surrounded by fellow electors and other dignitaries, he also will be engulfed by a lifetime of memories as he prepares to cast his vote, one of 365 electoral college votes Obama will receive.

Little’s done this before. He was an elector when Jimmy Carter became president, and he twice cast electoral votes for Bill Clinton.

“But those all pale compared to this,” said the 86-year-old Minnesota civil rights giant.  “I keep thinking this is a dream, and I’m afraid that any moment now, I’m going to wake up and it’s going to be over.”

Memories of slights, fights, brave people and fools
This vote today summons up memories of a lifetime of slights, fights, brave people and fools. It brings back memories of growing up in Washington, N.C.

Born in 1921, the great-grandson of a slave, Little couldn’t drink water at the public fountains. Along with all other blacks, he had to sit in the balcony at the movie theater. He went to the colored high school, which was located next to the town dump.

“The smell was awful,” said Little. “In those days, they didn’t cover the garbage with dirt. They just dumped it and, during the Depression, you could see the poorest families going through the garbage looking for anything that might have value.”

If you were black, you knew your neighborhood boundaries. In the white neighborhoods, the streets were paved. In the black neighborhoods, the streets were a mix of sand, gravel and dirt.

Little things still are vivid in his mind about those streets.

White kids could roller-skate. Black kids never learned how.

“You ever tried to skate on sand?” said Little.

When he was in high school, his sports teams wore the hand-me-down uniforms from the public school, the white school.

“We had to call ourselves the Yellowjackets because that’s what their school name was and it was on our jerseys,” he recalled.

Growing up powerless to fight indignities
He remembers the incredible sense of powerlessness that came with all of those indignities. 

“I had the feeling it couldn’t last because it was so inhuman,” Little said. “But there was nothing we could do about it. There were no organizations around to fight it. It was just the way it was.”

Matt Little was more fortunate than some of the other black kids in Washington. Though his father, Arthur, had only a third-grade education, he believed that education was the only way to fight the system.

“My old man said his kids were going to go to college,” said Little.

And they did.

Matt Little, circa 1963
Courtesy of Matthew Little
Matt Little, circa 1963

Matt Little received a bachelor of science degree from an all-black college, North Carolina A&T State University. He joined the service and, after getting discharged in 1948, moved to Minneapolis, sure that this was a place he would be accepted on the basis of his skills. He remembers applying for 10 jobs where he could put his degree to work and being turned down 10 times. Married and a father, Little decided he had to go back to doing what he’d done in college. He began waiting tables, lunch at the Dyckman Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, dinner at the Curtis.

All the while he wondered: Will things ever change?

In the early 1950s, he saw that the Minneapolis Fire Department was hiring. He applied, breezing through the written text and the physical exam. But there also was a third test: an interview.

“You had to have at least a 75 on each of the three tests,” Little said. “I got a 74.5 on the interview.”

He could stand it no more. Little started to fight back. Seven years later, as a NAACP leader, he was a major player behind a federal suit that forced the Minneapolis Fire Department to hire more blacks.

While working for the post office and raising a family, he was the longtime director of the once-mighty Minneapolis branch of the NAACP. He’s led marches and legal fights. He’s offered empathy to the weak and challenged those in positions of power.

Today, he’s joining Bill Davis, another longtime civil rights activist in the Twin Cities, and eight other DFLers to cast their historic electoral ballots for the first black president. The other electors are: Arthur Anderson of Albert Lea, Jim Gremmels of Glenwood, Benjamin Gross of Eagan, Dave Lee of Minneapolis. Al Patton of Sartell, Jackie Stevenson of Minnetonka, Joan Wittman of St. Paul, and Donya Wright of Biwabik.

When Little casts his vote, he doesn’t know whether he’ll laugh or cry. Perhaps, he’ll do both.

“I’m carrying so much with me,” Little said.