Matt Little and Martin Luther King Day

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Literally a living legend, Matt Little’s name bespeaks Minnesota’s historic fight for civil rights, and no one is better qualified to reflect on the meaning of Martin Luther King Day.

As president of the Minnesota NAACP chapter, he organized contingents of Minnesota activists to attend the 1963 March On Washington, where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King gave his immortal “I Have A Dream” speech, indicting America for injustices against its black citizens. In that era, there was an anti-draft card burning bill, but no legislation against lynching. Discrimination in such crucial areas as employment, education and housing kept millions of black men, women and children enslaved to poverty.

On that day, Dr. King said:

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

Matthew Little: Minnesota civil rights leader
Born in North Carolina in 1921, Matthew Little grew up in the segregated South and wanted to become a doctor. After graduating from North Carolina A & T, he spent three and one-half years in military service, seeing combat in the infantry, during World War II. After the war, he moved to Minneapolis in 1948, and got jobs waiting on tables. After he was denied a job with the fire department because of his race, he became a leader of the Minnesota NAACP. Years later, he testified in the lawsuit that forced the Minneapolis Fire Department to agree to hire 20 black firefighters.

He has been a “stringer” for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder since 1965, and has contributed a weekly column, Little by Little since 1974.

The Minnesota Historical Society’s In Their Words: Stories of Minnesota’s Greatest Generation has Matthew Little’s story on its website.

The accomplishment of Martin Luther King Day becoming a holiday was by no means a simple act.

“I don’t recall exactly when the legislation [for MLK Day] was passed, but I know we lobbied like the devil,” recalled Little.

That lobbying confronted strong entrenched opposition, which did not abate after the bill was passed. Martin Luther King Day became a national holiday in 1983, yet wasn’t officially celebrated until 1986. Even then, not all the United States acknowledged it. Arizona’s refusal resulted in the state being disqualified from hosting the 1993 Super Bowl. It wasn’t until 2000, when South Carolina caved in and put it on the calendar, that all 50 states recognized the holiday.

None of which lessens Matt Little’s sense of satisfaction as he looks back on a long, hard-sought victory.

“It [was] a dream come true,” he recalled. “At the time, even some of our supporters [had] expressed some skepticism” about the bill succeeding. Formidable barriers stood in the way, particularly the fact that, before then, only presidents had been so honored. Strident nay-sayers like North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms called King a communist and smeared him in speeches in Congress for left-wing associations both real and imaginary. There was also the obvious. He wasn’t white.

“Of course,” said Little. “That goes without saying. We were ahead of our time in asking for that [and] felt a real sigh of relief. That was a major accomplishment, a symbol.”

Not just a designation on the calendar, more than an event from times past, the spirit of Martin Luther King Day is something Matt Little sees as being quite relevant today.

“I’m so enthralled by Barack [Obama], because I certainly believe it’s saying that [Obama’s election] is a fulfillment of that dream that Martin talked about in that hot August of 1963 in from of the Lincoln Memorial.”

Indeed, for this year’s celebration of MLK Day, Little will be in Washington, D.C. for the inauguration of the nation’s first African American president.

Before his death in 1968, King and his most vocal detractor of color, civil rights activist Malcolm X had grown less polarized from one another and more interested pursuing that which they held in common, a soul-deep commitment to the struggle against institutionalized racism in America.

“[It] was a real breakthrough,” said Little, “because we know that among the youth there were an awful lot of followers of Malcolm. And some of them [didn’t appreciate] Martin’s non-violent stance.”

Accordingly, when the two leaders began to see a bit more eye to eye, said Little, “we welcomed it.” Asked whether he believes there will ever by a Malcolm X Day, he takes a moment before answering. “I don’t know. It’s possible. I certainly thought we’d never see a black president. So, I am reluctant to say ‘never.’ And Malcolm is becoming more recognized for the hero he was all the time. It may not be in my lifetime, but then in my lifetime I didn’t expect to [see Obama’s election], either.”

Reflecting on the change in America that was symbolized by Martin Luther King Day being made a holiday, looking at the change effected by Barack Obama becoming president, Matt Little concluded, “I don’t think any white person is going to see a black person the same, anymore.”

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet.

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