Civil rights activist Matt Little leaves legacy of leadership and ‘opening doors’

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Matt Little

Matt Little wanted to be a doctor. But in the South, doors to medical schools were closed to blacks, so in 1948, Little moved to Minneapolis.

In Minneapolis, Little wanted to be a firefighter. But doors to the fire halls at the time were virtually closed to blacks.

So in the 1950s, Matt Little became a civil rights activist and leader, and slowly doors were opened.

Little, who typically spoke softly but carried big dreams, died Sunday at his St. Paul home. He was 92.

There’s little about our region that hasn’t been touched by Little, who was a leader in everything from the 1963 March on Washington  (where Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech’’ was delivered) to DFL politics to school desegregation in Minnesota to seniors tennis.

He always insisted that he came to Minnesota from a dirt-poor upbringing in Washington, N.C., on the flip of a coin. After being rejected for medical school, the military vet said he no longer could tolerate the “apartheid” of the South.

He didn’t know, however, where to go until the coin flip pointed him to Minneapolis, where he raised his family, waited tables (at the Dyckman and Curtis hotels), worked for the Post Office and started a landscaping business.

And all the while, he pushed hard for equal rights. After being rejected by the Minneapolis Fire Department in the early 1950s — he easily passed the written and physical exams but “failed” the interview — he was part of a federal lawsuit that led to changes in hiring practices.

As recently as the 1990s, as a leader of the Minneapolis branch of the NAACP, he still was involved in anti-discrimination lawsuits against Minnesota schools, particularly the Minneapolis school district.

Little believed that only totally integrated schools could lead to equal education. By the 1990s, however, some black leaders, including Sharon Sayles Belton, who was mayor of Minneapolis at the time, had begun to disagree. Belton, among others, believed that busing had destroyed neighborhood schools and that the loss of those schools had been hurtful to inner city kids.

The two may have disagreed on the issue, but they remained friends.

DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin praised his political activities, too: “Matt was an active DFLer who worked alongside the greats in our party like Hubert Humphrey, Orville Freeman and Walter Mondale, among others, in the fight for equality, human rights and economic justice.”

Little had friends across all segments of society. He was, for instance, a leader and participant in seniors tennis.  He was the recipient of an honorary doctor of laws in 2002 from the University of Minnesota.

He always spoke of working in conciliatory ways, yet the fire in his heart for an equal society never faded. Until his death, he was an active member of the African American Leadership Council in St. Paul.

Courtesy of Matthew Little
Matt Little in 1963

In an interview with the Star Tribune’s Denise Johnson about the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, he said: “I never believed we were in a post-racial society. We cannot close our books and say this is it. There is still a need for the Urban Leagues and the 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 pause.’’ 

But he also was able to understand — and appreciate — the major steps forward in the society.

He was thrilled, for example, that Minneapolis had elected a black mayor. And he was overcome with joy when he was able to cast a vote, as a member of the Minnesota electoral college, for President Barack Obama.

“I keep thinking this is a dream and that any moment now I’m going to wake up and it’s going to be over,’’ he said in an interview with MinnPost prior to casting that vote for Obama in 2008.

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