Stephen P. Smoot vividly recalls the early days of the Utah chapter of the ACLU: There were only a handful of people in Salt Lake who wanted to get things going, but they felt they had to.
Among other things, in the 1950s the chilling influence of red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy was sweeping in from Washington, D.C., and from McCarthy's home state, Wisconsin, to the Intermountain West.
Smoot noted with dismay that prominent people in Utah were being wrongly smeared as "communists" conspiring to destroy America.
"We thought it would be well to start something here," Smoot said Friday, following an informal gathering of former local ACLU directors and members.
Adam "Mickey" Duncan, a community activist and later a member of the Utah Legislature, obtained the national ACLU charter. Another founding member was Spencer Kimball Jr., dean of the University of Utah School of Law and son of the late president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Those two men and Smoot were the three original linchpins of the fledgling American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, and now Smoot, who will be 80 next month, is the only living founder.
"People were being accused of being communists, and this sort of upset me," Smoot said, recalling the 1958 founding of this state's ACLU chapter. "We were slipping into our own microcosm of McCarthyism in Utah."
In the early days, people were not too familiar with the ACLU, so its members went to police courts and city halls to seek out those whose constitutional rights might be getting violated. When violations were uncovered, an ACLU attorney was ready to help those individuals.
Smoot, who served as the group's second president, after Duncan, later took a less active role because he needed to focus on his work as director of the U.S. Department of Commerce International Trade Association of Utah, but he always remained a member.
He said he is proud the local ACLU has kept alive "the notion of what civil liberties are all about" over the years. He hasn't agreed with every decision the group has made, but he applauds its overall mission."They've asserted themselves so that we're well established and people know to seek them out," he said. "The central idea of civil liberties and civil rights certainly began with groups like these."