VOICES: Allan Spear: 1937 – 2008 | A tribute to the Senator

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When Senator Allan Spear passed away on Saturday, October 11 Minneapolis lost one of its greatest elected representatives. Minnesota lost one of exemplary great statesmen and our nation lost one of the leading figures in the movement for civil rights and greater equality for all.

Allan Spear was the first openly gay member of the Minnesota Legislature and the longest serving, highest ranking openly gay state legislator in the United States when he retired in 2000. Senator Spear was the second elected official in the nation to publicly embrace being gay, doing so in 1974, and is widely known as the founder of the movement towards encouraging openly gay citizens to run for public office and to help other gay elected officials also embrace their identity.

Senator Spear moved to Minneapolis in 1964 to join the faculty of the History Department at the University of Minnesota after receiving his undergraduate degree from Oberlin College and his Ph. D. in African American history from Yale University. At Oberlin College he was very involved in the African American civil rights movement, connecting his experiences as a Jew and gay man to the larger effort for greater liberation, profoundly shaping his life’s work and sense of justice. He wrote an influential historical account about the African American experience in Chicago at the turn of the 20th Century. He was admired by students and colleagues alike for his intelligence and inspiration as a teacher and a scholar.

Allan was a life-long Democrat and was first elected to the Minnesota State Senate in 1972 to serve as a representative of Southwest Minneapolis. He was elected president of the Senate in 1993 and later that year succeeded in guiding the passage of Minnesota’s GLBT civil rights law, delivering passion and eloquence during the debate – a Senate floor speech that will be long remembered. Allan Spear continues to be broadly praised by members of both parties as one of the Senate’s most skilled and impartial presidents.

Allan Spear was a hero in our country’s sometimes halting, irregular, but inevitable march toward greater justice for its people. He generously shared of his intellect and skill in utilizing power and politics to bring about the promises for equality and justice on which our country was founded. He had a unique grasp of history and knew that only hard work and strategic organizing would create the future we all dream of – greater opportunity, fairness and justice for everyone.

I personally remember a good friend, reserved in his demeanor but transformative in his oratory. He was a vital figure in the progressive movement with many of today’s leaders receiving their earliest calls to public service from Allan Spear, myself included.

State Representative Karen Clark of Minneapolis says, “For twenty years Allan and I served together in the Minnesota Legislature, the only openly gay state legislators in the country for the first six years. Allan was a good friend and also a trusted legislative ally I could go to for thoughtful advice. His unwavering commitment to civil rights and to economic and social justice for all ran deep, reflected Allan’s own high standards for personal and professional integrity and earned him the respect not only of his constituents and colleagues here, but also throughout the nation. Time and again we teamed up, especially for those who lacked a voice at the Minnesota Capitol. One of my proudest moments was emerging victorious from the House Chamber in the Spring of 1993, hand in hand with Allan after the House voted to outlaw discrimination against GLBT people in Minnesota. I will miss Allan’s friendship, his humor, his strategic mind, his political insights, his inspiring public speaking, his appreciation for the good parts of life and his fervent desire that others have a chance to enjoy them too. My heart goes out to his partner, Jun.”

Another former State Senator, Barack Obama of Illinois, said, “I join with all Minnesotans who mourn the loss of Allan Spear. His evenhandedness, his command of the issues and his ability to reach across the aisle and work with colleagues of both parties were legendary and should inspire us all. He was a man of great courage who served as one of this nation’s first openly gay legislators. Michelle and I and the Bidens send our thoughts and prayers to Allan’s partner, Junjiro Tsuji, and all the family, friends and colleagues who loved him.”

Allan Spear was my cherished friend, mentor and quite simply, my hero. He taught us that politics could be a force for good in people’s lives. He lived a life of courage and honesty – demanding intellectual rigor in the creation of public policy. He spoke eloquently and movingly about our country’s ideals – equality under the law, fairness of opportunity for everyone, and justice for the least among us who have no voice. His life and actions inspired me and many others to pursue a life of public service and strive to bring about change for the better in our country. A loud voice for civil rights has left, but the echoes of his words will reverberate forever in our laws and in the justice he helped bring about.

Memorial Service to be held on Sunday, November 23, from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. at Temple Israel, 2324 Emerson Avenue South, Minneapolis (reception to follow).