Remembering Social Justice Advocate Robert Latz

Every Friday night when his four children were growing up, after Shabbat candle lighting and blessings, Robert “Bob” Latz would sit down with his family in the kitchen to ask how their week had been.

Latz — a civil rights lawyer and four-term state representative — usually kept work separate from home life. But even the family’s furniture reflected his commitment to equality, as Latz’s children would recall decades later.

“We had a round table in our kitchen, so everyone had an equal view of everyone else,” said Ron Latz. “We all participated in robust discussions about whatever was going on.”

Bob Latz died peacefully of old age on April 19. He was 91.

Latz was a giant of the Minneapolis Jewish community and a stalwart member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) party, with a career that ranged from co-authoring Minnesota’s 1961 Fair Housing Law to serving as one of the first Jewish regents at the University of Minnesota.

But even as he grew an impressive resume, Latz’s family remembered him as an attentive husband, father, and grandfather who always put family first and invented spontaneous puns mid-conversation to make people laugh.

“Dad was really the patriarch of the family — not just our family, but even of his own family,” said Shari Latz Rothman, the youngest of Latz’s children. “His father passed away when he was 18. And from that moment on, he became in a lot of ways the caregiver for his mom and his siblings…his older brother was deaf and he had five sisters.”

The key to Latz’s success, in work and with family, was his deep love for Carolyn, his wife of 60 years. 

“We could not have excelled or even kept the family unit together, where we all talk regularly if it had not been for mom and dad,” said Mickey Latz. They gave their children “the support and the confidence to be able to help each other, and also want to continue being close to family.”

Walking in his father’s footsteps

Latz was born in 1930 to Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants Rubin and Rose (Arnov) Latz in Minneapolis. The family previously lived on the Iron Range, where Rubin ran for the Hibbing City Council on the Socialist Party ticket.

In Minneapolis, Rubin organized the Laundry Workers and Dry Cleaners Union and became involved in the Minnesota Farmer-Labor party (a precursor to the DFL) advocating for workers’ rights. Hubert Humphrey was a family friend.

As the youngest child, Latz was often taken by his parents to political events. “I was the last one either left at home or the last one who didn’t have teenage kinds of activities,” Latz told the Minnesota Historical Society. “So from the time I was a very young kid I went to all of the rallies.”

Shortly after Latz started attending the University of Minnesota, Rubin died. But his father’s work defined his political and legal career.

“He never forgot those working-class roots,” Ron said, or “the people who worked hard, did an honest day’s labor, and shouldn’t have to face uphill battles against institutional resistance in order to live a good life.”

Serving as assistant attorney general after graduating from law school at the U, Latz prosecuted the first charge under Minnesota’s employment discrimination law. 

Soon after, he was elected to represent North Minneapolis in the state Legislature, where he advocated for anti-discrimination and civil rights legislation. In 1966, he was the DFL-endorsed candidate for attorney general. 

In his private practice, Latz devoted himself to representing clients who faced discrimination, like in one class-action suit against a manufacturing company that excluded women from higher-paying jobs. The class action took 10 years to litigate in favor of the women, and the settlement forced the company’s sexist practices to change.

“There were plenty of times when he could have settled those cases” early, said Ron, who worked as his father’s law partner at the time. “He believed enough in the cases that, at sacrifice to himself, he continued to pursue what he felt was a just and right outcome.”

Latz also inherited a strong friendship with the African American community from Rubin. Rubin mentored Nellie Stone Johnson, a fellow union organizer who became the first Black elected official in Minneapolis. After Rubin’s death, Stone Johnson took Latz under her wing.

Latz was close friends with civil rights activist Josie Johnson, who memorialized Latz at his funeral on April 24. 

“We were, Bob and I, young believers that we could make diversity work,” Johnson said. She alluded to the unfinished work of the Civil Rights movement. 

“We must be where Bob and I were 40 plus years ago. We as a community and as a people must believe that it is possible to have justice and to believe in our struggle,” Johnson said. 

“We miss you, Bob. And we love you, Bob. And we hope to keep your faith in human love for all.”

Family pride

To relax from work, Latz would take his family vacationing at a lake house away from the Twin Cities. While the kids played in the lake, he sat on the deck with coffee and a newspaper and went for lakeside walks. The retreat was a simple but important ritual.

“He went outside his comfort zone,” Ron said. “He didn’t grow up with the boat, swimming, any of that stuff, but he wanted to make our family benefit from it.”

Over the decades, Latz developed many interests, from collecting a range of newspaper and magazine subscriptions to fulfilling his dream of driving a sports car by buying a 1986 Corvette t-top. Sometimes, his interests overlapped with his career.

In 1975, Latz became one of the first Jewish regents at the University of Minnesota, a matter of personal pride both for him and a Jewish community that historically faced antisemitism at the U. For Latz, the role was a perfect fit — a former Minnesota Hillel president, he was also an avid sports fan with season tickets to the Gophers.

“That love of sports that he had, and he instilled in us…is something that’s carried through to all of our lives,” said Mickey, who always called his father during Vikings games. 

Latz also loved music and Broadway shows, with a baritone voice so good his children insist he could have been a professional singer. That’s a side of him that Shari inherited — unlike her brothers, who are either lawyers or in business management, Shari is a harpist.

It’s a career choice that led Latz to give his only daughter some attentive questioning.

“He supported us in all of our passions, and he made us justify them,” Shari said. “He said, ‘Why do you want to be a harpist? Can you actually make a living at this.’..he wanted to know that I was thinking it through and not just wasting my time.”

Latz always wanted to know what his children and grandchildren were doing, and to make sure they had the best advice for any endeavor. His interest came from the pride and love he had for his family — a feeling his children say is mutual.

“We were always really proud of him,” Shari said. “Everything that he did, I always was proud to say, ‘this is my father.’”

Latz is survived by his wife, Carolyn; his four children, Ron (Julia), Marty (Linda), Mickey and Shari (Mike Rothman) and his eight grandchildren, Nate, Miya and Yana Latz; Jason and Valerie Latz; Sophia, Adam and David Rothman.