Matthew Stark, a longtime voice for the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, didn’t care if he ruffled feathers. It went along with the job.
“He was a zealous advocate for civil liberties,” said Teresa Nelson, legal director for the ACLU of Minnesota. He had a strong, sometimes polarizing, personality, she added. But much of the work he did for the organization over more than three decades was groundbreaking. He fought for reproductive freedom and the separation of church and state. And he stood up for LGBT rights at time when others did not, Nelson said.
“He was unwavering in his positions,” she said.
Stark, of Minneapolis, died Tuesday. He was 88.
“Matt Stark dedicated his life’s work to the protection of civil liberties,” said John Gordon, ACLU of Minnesota executive director. “Matt’s contributions to the protection of civil liberties have benefited thousands of Minnesotans.”
He served as the organization’s president for six years before becoming executive director in 1973. After stepping down in 1987, he served on the board of directors until 1998, much of that time as the board president.
As the organization’s chief spokesman, Stark would strategically hold Sunday news conferences in hopes of getting the most coverage on what typically is a slow news day, according to a 1980 Star Tribune story. He relished telling stories of old battles and confrontations with religious fundamentalists and abortion foes.
His mission, he said, was to defend the constitutional rights of those who happen to be in the minority against members of the majority.
“Our clients are not the Nazis or the people who own porno stores,” he said. “Our client is the Bill of Rights. When we defend the Nazis or anyone unpopular, we’re not saying we necessarily agree with them. We’re defending their constitutional rights to peacefully assemble, or whatever. It’s only when we defend and win rights for the most hated in society that we’re protecting the rights for us all.”
His allies considered him brilliant and a vociferous defender of the Bill of Rights. His foes considered him divisive and somewhat arrogant.
“Matthew was a force,” said Frank Broderick, a longtime friend who once served on the board for the ACLU’s Minnesota chapter. “If you’re going to change something in society, you’re not going to do it by coming on like [Caspar] Milquetoast.”
Stark was smart, researched his arguments and was a dedicated debater, Broderick said. He didn’t back down.
In 1973, Stark went to New York for an ACLU annual meeting and suggested the national group take on the issue of sports teams using mascots that are offensive to American Indians. They didn’t, so Stark returned to Minnesota and took up the cause. “That was Matthew,” Broderick said. “He was an instigator.”
As a friend, he was endearing, Broderick said. “He was New York loud with a little bit of a New York twang,” he said. “But there was nothing self-serving about him.”
He was a tireless advocate for the underdog, said longtime friend Sandy Morris. “He wouldn’t take no for an answer,” she said. “He was a visionary on how he saw the world coming together.”
Terri Stark, who was married to him for more than 30 years, considered him not only the love of her life but her hero. “He was a giant of a man for what he did for people,” she said. “We were a love story to his very last moment.”
He marched for civil rights and took a busload of University of Minnesota students to Selma, Ala., where they registered voters. He fought for the rights of women, migrant workers and American Indians.
He had the courage to stand up and speak out, sometimes prodding people to open their minds, his wife said.
In 1970, ACLU Minnesota adopted a position supporting transgender rights and in 1971 filed suit when two Minnesota men — Jack Baker and Michael McConnell — were denied a marriage license, the ACLU’s Nelson said.
It was the first time someone had sued claiming a constitutional right to marry a person of the same sex. The case eventually wound its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court refused to hear the case. Forty-three years later, it ruled the Constitution guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry.
When Stark pushed the case in 1971, he knew he was going to lose, his wife said. But he said that in time “gay people will have the same Constitutional protections and liberties as everybody else,” she recalled. “He lived to see that come to fruition.”
“He was always a visionary,” his wife said. “He always said he couldn’t do anything by himself but he could influence others.”
One of the people he inspired was U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison. “Matt was a friend to all who hunger for justice and fairness in our society, and his tireless advocacy helped to inspire me to run for office,” the Minnesota congressman said. “I thank him, and we will never forget him.”
Private services will be held at a later date.
Staff researcher John Wareham contributed to this report. Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788