Little and Newman teamed up in civil rights struggle—By James L. Stroud, Jr. Contributing Writer

Matthew Little -Photo by James L. Stroud

On August 10, 2011, the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder (MSR) celebrated 77 years in business. The newspaper’s anniversary is an opportunity to remember the late Cecil E. Newman, MSR’s founder, and the rich history he left behind.

The contributions and commitments of Mr. Newman’s late wife and co-publisher Launa Newman, their family, friends, employees, protégés and protégées over the years are also acknowledged.

Journalist Carl T. Rowan, for example, who graduated from the University of Minnesota, began his career with the MSR before joining the Minneapolis Tribune newspaper and later accepting an appointment from the Lyndon Johnson administration.

Writer, director, photographer, filmmaker and renaissance man Gordon Parks is another of those Newman protégés who worked with the MSR before taking on national and international notoriety for his writing and photography work with Life magazine (as well as being the first African American to write, direct and score a Hollywood film, Shaft, in 1971).

Equally notable in his own right as one of Cecil Newman’s protégés and close friends is longtime MSR contributor, civil rights activist, columnist and former Minneapolis NAACP president Matthew Little, who turns 90 years old on August 21.

MSR recently spoke with Little about Minnesota history, his long 61-year relationship with the newspaper and his close ties with MSR founder Cecil E. Newman.

Over the past six decades, the name Mathew Little has become synonymous with civil rights in Minnesota. Little came to Minnesota in 1948. In 1950, the Royal 20 Club gave him an assignment as publicity chairman that put him in contact with Cecil Newman. Shortly thereafter he began working for Newman at the newspapers formerly known as the Minneapolis Spokesman and St. Paul Recorder, now the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder or MSR.

Little proudly proclaims his close association with Newman as his confidant. According to Little, he and Cecil Newman worked together professionally for years and were close friends as well.

Newman and Little teamed up in those days fighting for better educational opportunities, better jobs and housing. More than 30 years have passed since Little began writing a column entitled “The NAACP Today” for MSR. It later evolved into “Little by Little,” which still runs in the newspaper biweekly.

Little says that his most cherished MSR assignment was in 1965 when Newman asked him to come along on the official Minnesota delegation airplane to cover the inaugural of Newman’s friend Hubert H. Humphrey, who was being sworn in as vice president of the United States at the time.

Little recalls an unforgettable civil rights moment that he is most proud of personally: initiating and chairing the Minnesota contingent of the 1963 March on Washington, D.C., where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. “I will never forget that experience,” says Little.

“This was the first-ever largest gathering of [predominately Black] people in Washington, D.C. There were certain provisions that those attending had to abide by or their access would be denied.” According to Little, “Each person attending the march had to agree [in writing] not to partake in any violent act, even if someone provokes them, and we had to also agree to be out of Washington, D.C. by sundown.” Little states that he lost at least five people from their original delegation who refused to agree.

When Little is asked to confirm some historical information about Cecil Newman that many people would be surprised to learn, he does not hesitate to do so, perhaps because some of it he witnessed firsthand. Asked if it is true that Mr. Newman was the wordsmith for his good friend Hubert H. Humphrey during the creation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Little replies, “Yes.”

In addition, Little confirms that Newman also served as wordsmith while working closely with then-U.S. senator and later to be vice president Walter Mondale for successful enactment of the 1968 Housing Act.

If that information does not surprise you, then it should not surprise you to know that Cecil E. Newman was the first African American in the country appointed to a federal bank board of directors (Midwest Federal Savings & Loan). It was the seventh largest in the country at the time.

Little also remembers when Newman arranged a meeting between Reverend Leon Sullivan, founder of the Opportunity Industrialization Centers of America (OIC), with Hubert H. Humphrey. Humphrey was impressed and able to get President Johnson to back the plan in 45 cities in 1968.

Cecil E. Newman became the first chairman of the board for the Twin Cities area OIC thereafter. Little calls OICs of America a great landmark deal influenced mainly by Cecil Newman’s involvement.

While Little witnessed firsthand some of the civil rights work of the late Cecil Newman, he also made his own historic civil rights marks. During the early 1960s, Little was first vice-president for the NAACP and prompted the organization to file a lawsuit against the Minneapolis Fire Department for denying a young Black man a job.

After a two-year battle, an agreement between the organizations stipulated that the next 20 hired as firefighters would be Black people.

In 1995, after helping to develop the Minneapolis Fire Department’s first anti-discrimination code, Little was made an honorary member of the Minneapolis African American Professional Firefighters Association.

Little says that when Cecil Newman was around, there was very little that he didn’t have his hands on in Minnesota, so it’s no surprise to him that Newman has a building and a street named after him. “He certainly earned it.”

The MSR publisher and staff know that Matthew Little has certainly earned a permanent place of honor in the history of this city as well, and we thank him for sharing his wisdom and political insight with our readers all these many years.

Matthew Little, we salute you.

James L. Stroud, Jr. welcomes reader responses to jlstroud@spokes