He drove alone. His wife of one year, pregnant with their son, followed in another car.
Little took exit 185 off Interstate 20, drove straight through Oxford and Anniston without noticing much of anything and stopped only once he reached “the woods.”
Back then, Anniston was nothing more than another “regular Army assignment” to the man who has years later become its most polarizing city figure.
“I had no idea I would be staying here,” Little said in a recent interview.
He would stay. More than that, he would come to see himself as a leader for black residents, a champion of individual rights, a whistleblower on political wrongdoing. It’s a vision of himself that overlooks what his political foes frequently point out: his inability to compromise, use of intimidation to get what he wants, racial rhetoric when he does not.
But before all of this — before the councilman, before the pastor, before the drill sergeant — there was the boy. The boy running wide open down a dirt road, swinging up onto his aunt’s porch, sneaking bites of sweet homemade preserves. The boy cropping tobacco and hitching a mule cart to the family dog. Going to church on Sundays, basketball practice in the afternoons. Dreaming at nights about seeing the world.
The road into Hemingway, S.C., is quiet, dotted with farms and low-country churches, wisteria vines and planted pines. The town proper is just two streets — Main and Broad — flanked by a railroad and Don’s Car Crushing company on one end — Haseldon Brothers Ford and Greg Askins’ law firm on the other.
“Hemingway was an easy, slow place,” Town Administrator Joe Lee said recently, asked to recall the era of Little’s childhood. “Ben is a product of that.”
Little was born there in 1957 to a poor single woman who already had four children. She gave him up for adoption to a railroad man and his wife, a woman famous for her homemade biscuits. About 1,000 people called Hemingway home when Little grew up there. About 600 live there today.
When Little was a boy, trust came easy to Hemingway residents, said Lee, Little’s former basketball coach. It was a place where people left their doors unlocked, violent crimes happened only rarely and everyone knew everyone else’s names. Hemingway residents — black and white — attribute the relative ease of integration to the low-key, friendly culture that was already in place.
“It wasn’t like what you heard about happening in other places during that time,” Little said. “It wasn’t racism-free, but it was nice.”
He lived, as most of his extended family did, on farmland along a rural road about 5 miles outside of Hemingway. The area was and still is known as Hog Crawl. It takes some guess-work and backtracking to find it, because — among the cow fields, rows of tilled tobacco, and swampy, Spanish-moss covered woods — road signs and other markers are few and far between.
But you’ll know you’re there if you pass the old Tupperware plant, take a right, drive a couple of miles, take a left and drive a few more.
You’ll see a group of small wooden houses, neat front yards and a basketball court. This is where Little grew up and where many of his family members still live.
“It was a village and a wholesome lifestyle,” Little’s cousin Sylvia Brown Woods agreed. “All of our aunts and uncles were parents.”
She and Little were two of the 75 black students chosen for Hemingway’s first integration program in 1970. They remember a few initial problems: Blacks and whites were forced to sit on separate sides of the bus and classrooms, and occasionally white teachers would focus their attention only on the white side of the room. “But after the initial years of integration, things really panned out,” Little said. “A lot of racial stuff just went away.”
Anniston seemed a darker place, Little said, a harder place for blacks than Hemingway was. Stories of the Freedom Rides and the 1961 Anniston bus-burning, the difficult integration of city schools, the white flight from the western and southern parts of the city stood out to Little as he and his wife went through the motions of settling down in the Model City. In September 1984, they purchased a small west Anniston home at 2924 Moore Ave. That year, Little began attending church at Gaines Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church — the only AME church in Anniston.
He hadn’t made up his mind to stay. It would take another decade, ordainment as the pastor of Gaines Chapel and retirement from the Army to convince him of that. But already, he said, he’d felt like his skin color was more of an issue here than it had been in Hemingway.
“I wasn’t thinking about making Anniston better,” Little said of his first years. “I was just thinking about being who I am, surviving.”
On June 17, 2010, a contractor working for the City of Anniston paved a private parking lot for a West Anniston church. Two weeks later, the city paid the $3,370 bill. For the past six months, city finance officials have been trying to get the Greater Calvary Baptist Church to pay them back.
The parking lot should never have been paved by a city contractor or paid for by the city in the first place, said Finance Director Danny McCullars and Public Works Director Bob Dean. But technically it wasn’t illegal.
It was just a small example of the influence of Little, who by the time the parking lot was paved had spent a decade on the Anniston City Council.
An Anniston ordinance allows the city to do public works projects on private land if it’s in a right-of-way or for a greater public use — as long as the private owner foots the bill. But it was a questionable use of city time and labor, a couple of officials said.
“I resisted it for six months, but I got an email from the city manager basically begging me to get it done,” Dean said recently.
City Manager Don Hoyt ordered it done, he said, because Little asked for it. Hoyt told a reporter it was ultimately his own call to make. For his part, Little said it was important and necessary for the city to pave the church lot — especially because some of that lot is in the right-of-way. At least he goes through the proper channels to get projects done, Little said. He said other officials accomplish things by doing it “on the hush-hush.”
Hoyt agreed it benefited the public to pave that lot — at the corner of Constantine and Chestnut avenues — because it kept cars from having to park on the roads, causing congestion. But Dean said Little pressured Hoyt into committing to the project.
“He thinks he can intimidate me, that’s all,” Hoyt said of Little when asked whether the councilman bullies him. “That’s his way. At some point, it’s just better to get over something and go on.”
Little’s transformation from non-committal Anniston resident to outspoken city councilman took time.
The process began when he was ordained in 1992 as a pastor at Gaines Chapel AME. In his new role, he heard parishioners’ first-hand accounts of their problems. That’s when he began to see himself as their voice, the champion of their causes. Little didn’t attend theology school to become a pastor. Instead, he attended several training classes taught by AME church elders, he said.
Jesse Buchanan, a Gaines Chapel parishioner, recalls Little’s determination to help out during the famous blizzard of 1993. Many of the church members were stranded in their homes and needed help clearing driveways, getting food and other supplies.
Little was stationed at Fort Jackson, S.C., when the storm blew through. But tales of closed interstates and icy road conditions didn’t stop him from coming to his parishioners’ aid, they said.
“It’s amazing that he even made it, but he did,” Buchanan said. “That’s just the kind of pastor he was.”
Little remembers the drive. He made it to the Georgia-Alabama state line on Interstate 20 when traffic in the westbound lanes came to a standstill.
So, Little drove his truck across the median into the eastbound interstate lanes.
“I came all the way into Anniston that way,” he said.
A Calhoun County Commission decision to burn a homeless man’s refuge under a city bridge launched Little into civic life.
In April 1997, the commission called the scraps and debris under the Lenlock Bridge “a public health nuisance” and set it on fire. Little took local officials to task. Speaking as a concerned pastor, he called the commission’s decision a violation of human rights and an inappropriate response to local poverty.
Afterward, Commissioner J.D. Hess met with Little and another minister; they agreed to create a committee to deal with the county’s homeless population. That idea was eventually abandoned. Instead, the commission asked Little to accept a position as the board president of a local anti-poverty agency, Community Services of Calhoun and Cleburne Counties.
The group served low-income residents of both counties, providing financial assistance for electric and medical bills, mortgage payment and job training.
“He would help out anybody who needed help, if they were doing what was right,” said Martha Sims, who worked with Little on the Calhoun County Board of Registrars around the same time.
Buchanan said he doesn’t recognize the man he says Little has become.
The arguments and the grandstanding he reads about in the paper seem a far cry from the man who once led his church. Other former parishioners at Gaines Chapel AME refused to be interviewed about Little: the councilman or the church pastor.
“He was always an ambitious person,” Buchanan said. “But he is a different person now.”
Little stood on the corner of West 15th Street and Cobb Avenue and accused police officers of racist behavior. The 75 people surrounding him seethed, pressing closer as women jabbed their fingers in his face. They hurled insults in his direction and ridiculed his comments. “You do not stand for anything right,” Anniston resident Amber Sprayberry shouted during the Sept. 1, 2011, conference.
It was hardly the first time Little staged a gathering of this sort. He’s made numerous allegations of police discrimination since he took office more than a decade ago. But his vague examples and first-hand accounts of perceived slights by the Police Department rarely generate much attention from large numbers of residents.
But last September it was different: Little was making the allegations just one week after an Anniston police officer had been fatally shot by a suspect he was chasing. The death of Officer Justin Sollohub rocked the community, and so did Little’s comments about the tragedy.
The day after Sollohub — a white officer — was allegedly shot by Joshua Eugene Russell — a black west Anniston resident — Little remarked in a newspaper article that the police were to blame for the distrust between their department and the community.
The backlash was immediate: Sollohub’s family asked police to turn Little away when he arrived to pay respects at the widely attended funeral. A week later, the crowd showed up at Little’s roadside conference to criticize his tactics. The next couple of City Council meetings — which rarely see more than a handful of residents — were packed with people, some of whom publicly expressed hope that Little would somehow be removed from office. It only made Little more resolute.
“I hadn’t planned on running again,” Little said last week. “But the determination of people to force me out makes me want to run.
“They can’t force me out.”
The Hemingway High Tigers won the 1974 state basketball championship, but one particular game got out of control.
Pamplico High was using Little and his Hemingway Tiger teammates to wipe the floor. And at this point, Little wasn’t on the floor. He’d fouled out.
At 6-foot-3, the 17-year-old Little was a key player — and wasn’t afraid to dunk, former teammate and friend Greg Askins remembered — but he was always too quick to put an elbow where it didn’t belong, coach Joe Lee said.
That’s why he was sitting on the bench next to Lee.
They both watched as a Pamplico player fouled Askins. When his teammate approached the free-throw line, Little said he could feel the tension pouring off his coach.
Askins launched the first free-throw shot at the goal. No sooner than the telltale swish of success: “Coach Lee hit me and said, ‘Greg is tough under pressure,’” Little recalled.
Seconds later, Askins tried for the second shot.
“And darn if I didn’t miss the doggone shot altogether,” said Askins, now a prominent Hemingway attorney.
And Lee started cussing, and Little started laughing.
“That’s just how Ben was: He was very laid-back, always smiling,” Lee said. “He treated everybody well, didn’t matter who you were.
“Everybody liked Ben.”
Many Anniston people won’t even talk on the record about Little. But with those who do, there is little middle ground.
People who want him out of office say he’s a troublemaker, an opportunist and, at worst, a race-baiter.
People who support him say he is an intelligent leader, loyal Christian and brave advocate of civil and individual rights.
Though opinions are split, three terms on the City Council have revealed this: Little’s loyalty to people who consistently support him is starkly underscored by his anger at those who prevent him from getting his way.
“He is highly trained. He is educated,” said state Rep. Barbara Boyd, an Anniston Democrat who defended her state House seat from Little when he ran against her as a Republican in 2002. “But on the other hand, he lacks the ability and the skills to compromise.”
The councilman’s political opponents admit that, one-on-one, he’s an amiable guy. Even Mayor Gene Robinson, Little’s current council nemesis, remembers a road trip to Montgomery the two took just after the mayor was elected. Little invited Robinson to go with him to an Alabama League of Municipalities meeting. The two stopped at a restaurant on the way home. They chatted together about their upbringings and some of the projects they hoped to start during the next term.
“He was very talkative, very personable,” Robinson admitted. “We kinda had gotten off to a good start, I thought.”
But with the first few council meetings, that quickly changed. Name-calling, explosive tempers and frequent bickering between the two have marked and marred the council’s past four years.
“His constantly demeaning voice, the tension, the attacks started right off the bat,” Robinson said. “You never could give him enough. If he didn’t get his way, he went ballistic.”
Many who know Little — whether they served on past councils with him, attended his church or served with him at Fort McClellan — declined to comment for this story, citing fear of lawsuits, becoming a target of Little’s very public wrath or general disdain at even having to think about him.
“I don’t want to comment,” said Calvin Jones, who served at Fort McClellan with Little. “I don’t want to re-open old wounds.”
Little joined the Army in 1975 after a recruiter came to Hemingway High. He saw it as his chance to see the world and make a living after graduation.
The hierarchy, structure and physical and mental tests — all were things that Little appreciated after years of growing up on a tobacco farm and playing on an elite basketball team.
In just two years, Little ascended to the rank of sergeant, setting the foundation for his later rise to the rank of first sergeant and his job as drill sergeant. In 1977, he was in Erlangen, Germany, serving in a combat support unit. There, he met the man he calls his military mentor: a fellow non-commissioned officer named Willie J. Larry.
When Little arrived in Erlangen, he said, he was a typical 18-year-old. He liked going to clubs and playing on the post basketball team with his friends. Larry said he saw potential in Little and, over time, began to increase his administrative responsibilities.
“Willie J. Larry set the standards for me about soldiering in general, mannerism and professionalism,” Little said.
In addition to Little’s regular duties, Larry gave him lessons on how to take care of financial rosters, make personnel decisions and keep track of other records.
“He was a very young man who responded to orders and instruction, was used to discipline and knew how to cooperate,” Larry said in a recent phone interview.
Little’s steady advancement through the Army ranks continued with his transfer back stateside — first to Fort Carson, Colo., and afterward to Fort Knox, Ky. There, as a 21-year-old in 1978, he began drill sergeant school.
“He had a good spiritual background,” said Larry. “And he was a born leader.”
Little was in a kitchen on a base in Fulda, Germany, when he got the orders. He had just made rank as an E7, sergeant first class, and was enjoying a hot plate of ham-hocks and black-eyed peas.
“Someone said, ‘Hey, Little, pack your bags,’” Little remembered.
He was 24 years old, and he’d been chosen to lead a platoon on 76 miles of the Czechoslovakia border.
Looking back on that time, the councilman expressed wonderment.
Sometimes, he said, it was hard being so young and being in charge, but he tried to balance fairness with politeness, and it worked.
“It was what Willie J. Larry taught me,” Little said. “And one thing the soldiers knew: No one was going to mess with them; if someone messed with them, they’d have a problem with me.”
Little had that same attitude early on as a pastor for Gaines Chapel, as the board president of the Community Services of Calhoun and Cleburne Counties and later as the minister for Refuge Full Gospel Methodist Church. In 1992, he was ordained as the full-time pastor, even though he was stationed at Fort Knox. For the next three years, Little drove hours from wherever he was stationed to Anniston each Sunday to preach. The drives were long, but he never missed a service.
“They were my parishioners,” Little said. “They depended on me, and I was not going to let them down.”
In 1995, he retired from the Army and made Anniston his home. By then, he was divorced from his wife (for a second time; the two had divorced once in 1987, remarried and divorced again four years later). She and their two children had moved back to South Carolina, and Little’s sole focus in Anniston was helping his parishioners.
“I worked hard at it,” he said. “I considered jumping over into the political arena.”
He left Gaines Chapel in 2004 after a disagreement, he says, with some of the AME organization elders. Half of the congregation came with Little; they eventually decided to start a new church — Refuge Full Gospel. About 115 people are registered church members, Little said. But only 24 people attended a recent Sunday service.
Little’s children, Broderick and Siobhan, don’t resent their father for his preoccupation with the church and his political office in Anniston. He was good father, they say, a strong one. They saw him several times a year when he’d visit them at their Columbia, S.C., home. He’d show up for Siobhan’s poetry recitals, to play basketball with Broderick before school tryouts. He didn’t get angry a lot; he was always honest with them, they said.
“He’s always going to do what’s right — that had a significant impact on me,” said Broderick, a 27-year-old accountant. “It might have been better he wasn’t around so much, because there was no opportunity for him to prove me wrong.
“He consistently set a good example for me.”
Siobhan is 24 and recently graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in business administration. Although Little hasn’t obtained a college degree, Siobhan said she couldn’t have gotten hers without his help.
“Sometimes, I’d be like: ‘I want to just quit, I don’t want to do anymore,’” she remembered. “He would say: ‘Your reward will be much greater if you get your degree.’”
Little and their mother, a schoolteacher in Newberry, S.C., have always been cordial to each other, Siobhan said. She could never try to play one off the other; if she did, Little would call her mom — then call Siobhan’s bluff.
Little’s children know something of the controversy that surrounds their father, the councilman. They read news articles online, lend an ear when Little is frustrated. Though their own experiences with their father are rarely troubled, neither is surprised at what they read or hear. Their father is stubborn, they say.
“He’s set in his ways, I’ll put it like that,” Broderick said with a laugh. “Being able to compromise is a desired trait; he has the ability to do that but — he is a polarizing figure, definitely.”
Recently, Little has again tried to pressure Hoyt, as revealed in a email exchange obtained by The Star under Alabama’s open records law.
In the exchange, Little verbally attacks Hoyt’s character, his ability to do his job and insinuates that Hoyt favors the requests of white residents over blacks.
Specifically, when Hoyt balked at ordering city workers to install a guardrail on the road in front of a Ward 3 resident’s home, Little accused Hoyt of being a manager only “for the few.” The resident, who lives at 410 Allen Ave., had in January complained to Little about a driver almost running his car onto the home’s front yard.
Little then launched an email exchange with Hoyt, directing him to put in a work order to install a guardrail on the property.
A reply email from Hoyt on Feb. 29 first told Little there was no money in the budget for his request.
“Just as I would expect in the Black area there is no money,” Little wrote in his reply later that day. “Again, you spend what you want to without council approval, now a danger to citizen exist and you say we don’t have any money, what a problem. Or you a manager for all or the few, the people or the few.”
The next day, Hoyt gave in.
“Bob, I’m crying ‘uncle,’” he wrote to the public works director. “Please add a work order for a short stretch of guard rail at 410 Allen.”
Little doesn’t see the push for the city to install that guardrail as a problem. Not at all — that he had to even put pressure on Hoyt at all is the problem, Little said recently when asked about the exchange.
He thinks Hoyt should have had public works crews installing the guardrail as soon as he asked him to do it.
“Don Hoyt was talking about a five-year plan — how stupid and idiotic is that?” he asked a reporter. “Every city manager, once they get in there for a while, thinks they are bigger than they are.”
Little isn’t sure yet whether he will run for re-election this August. But he mentions his growing conviction that a “phantom few” are controlling the actions of his political opponents and his determination to overcome public opposition as reasons he wants a fourth term.
Pressed about who exactly he believes is controlling city political decisions, Little replied, “It would not be good of me to say.”
Many Ward 3 residents said they hope he will run again. They say their area of the city is better because he is in office.
“We owe a lot to him,” Pine Avenue resident Charles Brooks said. “He keeps our area clean and helps us get things done.”
A west Anniston pastor, who recently had to close his church because of lack of attendance, said Little earns voter support because he is always available to anyone who wants to express frustration.
“He meets with people, discusses the problems in our community, listens to suggestions about how to make it better,” John Miller said. “His heart belongs to this community, and I appreciate that.”
Brooks said he never would’ve gotten the city to pave the alleyway behind his house on Pine Avenue without Little.
But Andrew Abdulhaqq, a longtime West Anniston resident and newly appointed president of the local chapter of the Alabama New South Coalition, said Little hasn’t done anything substantial for Ward 3.
Timothy Hawkins, the owner of Tim’s Barber Shop on West 15th Street, doesn’t know Little, but said he doesn’t like the argumentativeness that comes across in newspaper articles. He said west Anniston needs representatives who are willing to work with other city leaders to address its problems — the overreaching issues of poverty, unemployment and crime — and wishes Little would get serious about major revitalization projects in Ward 3.
“Really what you have from Councilman Little is just rhetoric,” he said.
And as a black resident, Abdulhaqq does not like the rhetoric he is hearing.
“Little injects race into everything, so the perception — as he stands in protest in front of Cooper Homes — is that he’s dealing with unfairness,” he said.
Little believes his unyielding, outspoken style is the only way to get other city leaders to pay attention to his ward residents. He says it works, offering up public work-order records as proof.
So far in fiscal 2012, 42 percent of the 751 work orders completed by the Public Works Department have been in Little’s ward. Of last fiscal year’s 1,443 Public Works projects, 32 percent happened in Ward 3, compared to 19 percent in both Wards 1 and 4 and 31 percent in Ward 2. And the numbers for previous years are much the same.
“That shows I am there, doing the work I need to be doing to take care of the people who put me into office,” he said.
He does not believe he’s a bully when he questions the city manager’s character or insinuates that he cannot do his job.
“I am going to be on their case to get things done,” Little said. “That’s not being a bully. That’s just doing your job.”
But Little admits that his delivery needs some improvement.
“The weakness with me is the way that I come across. I’m too blunt, I guess,” he said. “But it is what it is.”
Star Staff Writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562. On Twitter