'He was my role model'

Forum Extra

August 18, 1993|By Julian L. Lapides

IT'S difficult to believe that 30 years ago many Marylanders could not be served a Coca-Cola at a soda fountain or a bowl of soup at a restaurant or be allowed to spend the night at a hotel of their choice.

Many parts of Maryland were still segregated, and state laws did not protect the rights of all citizens.

Alex Stark, who died last week, was a tremendous force in changing this.

In 1962, by two votes, the Maryland House of Delegates failed to pass a public accommodations bill which would have guaranteed every Marylander the right to be served in public establishments.

That was the year I first ran for office on a campaign promise to help end Maryland's disgraceful record in civil rights. I was sworn into the House of Delegates in 1963. I met Alex, who had been at it for five years. He was quiet, independent, forceful and totally committed to the fight for equal rights.

He was my role model. (If only I could have captured his courtliness and gentleness!) We formed an alliance and a study group of like-minded delegates.

Due in large measure to Alex's leadership (and impassioned floor speeches), Maryland became the first state south of the Mason-Dixon Line to have a public accommodations bill. It was a difficult struggle, and I remember the hate letters and despicable telephone calls Alex and I received during and after the battle. In more than 30 years of political office, during which I've faced any number of controversial issues, I've never encountered such vicious attacks. Yet Alex Stark stood square-jawed and tall -- an inspiration to all who sought justice in Maryland.

The only time Alex disappointed me and his friends politically was when he failed in a bid for the state Senate in 1966. The old 5th District was politically controlled, and it was impossible for an independent Democrat to achieve victory. Alex would have made a magnificent state senator.

But this loss didn't end Alex's political career. In 1967, he successfully ran an independent race for Baltimore City Council and was re-elected in 1971. He was as distinguished as a councilman as he was a delegate. In a body not known for its intellectualism, Alex was a stand-out.

It is fitting that one of Alex's great victories in the council came as a result of a suggestion from his wife, Fran. In her work as editor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Fran learned that physicians at the Hopkins pediatric clinic were frequently treating youngsters with burns caused by unvented space heaters. She advised Alex, who investigated and introduced legislation banning unvented heaters in the city. (At first he thought he was speaking of hundreds of heaters, but he learned there were 10,000.) He was shocked by the bitter opposition of landlords, and it took three years of effort to get the bill enacted.

Alex could easily have continued in office, but he chose not to run again in 1975, depriving us of a voice of calm, reason and justice. His was the kind of representation the founders envisioned when they created our democratic form of government. It's a sad commentary that he was the political exception, not the rule.

Alex was honest, caring and committed to causes and issues that would make life better for all around him. I count it a privilege to have had my life touched by his. He taught us the meaning of "crown thy good with brotherhood."

Julian L. Lapides represents Baltimore's 44th District in the state Senate.

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