(Frank) Murphy's Law

He held several lofty positions in local, state, and federal government, but Frank Murphy was always a champion of the downtrodden. And, although politics is often a dirty business, he remained untainted and ethical


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Frank Murphy had been one of the most famous men in America, and now he was dead. On a warm summer day in 1949, some 20,000 Detroiters quietly shuffled through the marbled expanses of old City Hall to say goodbye to the beetle-browed crusader. Another 20,000 were turned away. “They came in shirt sleeves and they came with dinner pails,” a reporter observed. “There was sadness in their faces and many wept publicly, unashamedly.”

The rank and file had a special affection for Murphy, whose mediation of the landmark 1937 Flint sit-down strike had given the fledgling United Automobile Workers a breakthrough victory. At Dodge Truck, where workers had observed one minute of silence when company president Walter Chrysler died, factory hands paused at their workstations for a full five minutes to honor Murphy. When management declared it would dock workers 15 cents each for what amounted to excessive mourning, they countered in a way that would have drawn a sympathetic nod from the recently departed. They went out on strike.

Murphy was a friend to the disadvantaged, a guardian of the downtrodden, and a hero to the working class. As Recorder’s Court judge, mayor of Detroit, governor-general of the Philippines, governor of Michigan, U.S. attorney general, and associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, his life intersected with some of the great issues and events of his time. The New York Times described him as “one of the most earnest, interesting, and able men in public life,” an idealist who was “a searcher after the Grail if ever there was one.” Twenty years after his death, downtown Detroit’s new Recorder’s Court was named after him. It has since been expanded into a judicial center known as The Frank Murphy Hall of Justice. Outside is one of the last works by noted Cranbrook sculptor Carl Milles, The Hand of God, which the UAW commissioned to honor Murphy.

Among the pallbearers who accompanied Murphy to his final resting place in his hometown of Harbor Beach was Jim Lincoln, who was on Murphy’s staff in Lansing and Washington before going on to a long career in Detroit as a city councilman and judge. “One of his finest qualities was his easygoing way with people,” says the 92-year-old Lincoln. “Anyone could speak his mind to him and feel at ease. In his eyes, every person, no matter what their skin color or station in life, had dignity and was worthy of respect.”

Murphy had a pretty full life, even before coming to prominence in Detroit. Born William Francis Murphy in 1890 to Irish-American parents in what was then called Sand Beach (on Lake Huron in Michigan’s Thumb), he chose law — his father’s profession — over his mother’s wish that he become a priest. He earned a law degree at the University of Michigan, then did graduate work in London and Dublin. He went overseas again during World War I, serving as an Army captain in occupied Germany before accepting a position as assistant U.S. attorney in the Detroit office. He prosecuted bootleggers, bank robbers, and other criminals, losing just one case in three years. He also created the office’s civil-rights section, the first in the nation.

Murphy had shown himself to be a fearless prosecutor, but he resigned in 1922 to concentrate on the private practice that he and a college friend, Edward Kemp, had set up. Kemp was a quiet and conservative counterweight to Murphy. In the coming years, Kemp would accompany his friend throughout all his travels, remaining his closest confidant.

Murphy had long been active in Democratic politics, and had gained a reputation as a speaker. In 1923, he was persuaded to run for Recorder’s Court judge. Backed by The Detroit Times, which had a running feud with one of the sitting judges, Murphy outpolled all candidates to claim a seat on the municipal court. From that vantage point, he saw what needed fixing and took appropriate action. He changed the bail system so poor citizens could more easily make bond and created a separate traffic court to handle the growing number of minor auto-related offenses that were clogging the docket.
The most important civil-rights trials of the 1920s took place under Murphy’s gaze. One September evening in 1925, a group of whites threatened a black family moving into a house at 2905 Garland on Detroit’s east side. Shots rang out. One member of the mob dropped dead and another fell wounded. Eleven blacks were taken into custody, with the homeowner, Dr. Ossian Sweet, the first to stand trial for murder.

The Sweet case attracted national attention, not the least because the defense brought in the country’s most famous attorney, Clarence Darrow. After a jury of 12 white men could not agree on a verdict in the first trial, Murphy declared a mistrial. Sweet’s brother, the only defendant to admit to firing a gun, was tried next. Thanks to Darrow’s brilliant and theatrical defense, he was acquitted — a stunning victory that affirmed the right of a black man to defend his property in the face of racist threats.

Murphy’s determination to give the defendants a fair trial earned him praise. “It is so seldom that those of us who are trying to secure even-handed justice for Negro citizens encounter one like yourself,” a member of the defense team wrote Murphy, “you may well imagine our joy when that experience does come.”

Murphy liked to affect a tough-guy persona, but the wiry redhead was far from imposing. One observer described his “birdlike” mannerisms. He was an ascetic who eschewed alcohol and tobacco, but occasionally binged on chocolate ice cream. An exercise fanatic, his favorite pastime was horseback riding. His distinguishing characteristic was a set of eyebrows so astonishing they appeared to have been applied with a vaudevillian’s greasepaint.
More intimidating was his incorruptibility. Murphy, coming from a tight-knit family, was devoted to his siblings George and Marguerite, who at times drew enough financial support to be listed as dependents on his tax return. Although he enjoyed a comfortable income for most of his career, it was never near what he could have made in the private sector. “His devotion to public service was total,” Lincoln says. “He was not interested in money. He could not be corrupted because he could not be tempted.”

In 1930, Charles Bowles — a controversial figure with alleged ties to gangsters and the Ku Klux Klan — became the first mayor of a big American city ever recalled from office. At the urging of business leaders and newspapers, Murphy ran in the special election that followed, riding the votes of the “common herd” of ordinary citizens to victory.

Detroit’s new mayor took over a city filled with misery as citizens struggled with the effects of a deep economic depression. Auto production fell 75 percent between 1929 and 1932, resulting in newsreel images of soup lines, labor strife, and political agitators. For many, the loss of a job represented a loss of dignity and an overpowering sense of personal failure. “It seems to me I have lost all my ability as a responsible man,” an unemployed worker who refused welfare wrote Murphy. “It seems to me I have some shortcomings somewhere.”

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