(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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In confronting the immense challenges of The Great Depression, Murphy was creative and proactive, “a new dealer even before there was a New Deal,” observed his principal biographer, Sidney Fine, a retired University of Michigan professor and historian. He arranged for Detroiters to plant “thrift gardens” on empty city-owned lots, persuaded industrialists to turn over empty factories so they could be converted into boardinghouses for the homeless, and devised a plan that allowed delinquent property owners to pay their taxes over a seven-year period.

Murphy also was responsible for the apple vendors that became the iconic image of Depression-era Detroit. He arranged to have unemployed men, many of whom were physically handicapped, buy apples from a local produce company at 2 cents apiece. The apples were then resold on street corners for a nickel.

At the program’s peak, 650 Detroiters were supporting their families by selling apples.

Murphy’s profile grew when he organized meetings of desperate mayors — first statewide, then nationally — that in 1933 officially became the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He was elected the first president of the group, which helped persuade Congress to provide direct federal aid to cash-strapped cities for the first time in the country’s history. Even the Detroit Free Press, unfriendly to the administration, had to concede: “Frank Murphy could be elected president or emperor of any great country in the world as the Great Humanitarian.” His constituency was made up of laborers, Catholics, blacks, and first- and second-generation immigrants.

The charismatic public servant was not without his faults. He could be self-absorbed, sanctimonious, and too ambitious. Murphy, whose favorite topic of conversation was himself and his work, took some heat for being a publicity hound. The press also questioned the size of his personal security detail — two uniformed officers and two plainclothesmen — when previous mayors had just one or two cops protecting them. But these were minor blemishes on an otherwise outstanding mayoral record. He easily won a second term in the 1932 election that swept Franklin D. Roosevelt into the White House. It was the first time in 80 years that Michigan, a Republican stronghold for generations, had gone for the Democratic presidential candidate.

Murphy had campaigned hard for Roosevelt, and FDR rewarded his loyalty. In April 1933, Murphy was appointed governor-general of the Philippines. He saw the governorship of America’s most important overseas possession as a possible steppingstone to the presidency. While Murphy enjoyed the emoluments of his position — the governor’s palace, the servants, the yacht — he also confessed to feeling guilty about such perks. A devout Catholic, he continued to pray daily from the now-worn Bible his mother had given him the day he went off to college.

Murphy was wedded to his job, which was guiding the Philippines’ transition from a territory to a commonwealth en route to eventual total independence from the United States. “I have work to do and a short time in which to do it,” he wrote his brother.

Such single-mindedness was Murphy’s stock excuse for not settling down with one of his many female friends. Throughout his long public career, the press would report on a variety of companions, including actress Ann Harding and the equally stunning Ann Parker, selected as the most beautiful “girl” at Smith College. His lifelong preference for the company of younger women caused syndicated columnist Westbrook Pegler to dub him Frank “Hubba-Hubba” Murphy. When he left the Philippines in 1936, a local newspaper headlined its report: “Manila Maids Mourn Murphy’s Leaving.”

Murphy returned to Michigan to run for governor against the Republican incumbent, Frank Fitzgerald. Not everybody was enamored with the liberal challenger. Rural voters hated the idea of welfare, while business owners considered the New Deal to be an insidious form of Communism. On Nov. 3, 1936, thanks to overwhelming support among Detroit and Wayne County voters, Murphy squeaked out a narrow victory.

The new governor was faced with a major crisis right off the bat. When he took office on Jan. 1, 1937, autoworkers in Flint had just seized a pair of General Motors plants in an attempt to force the automaker to recognize their grievances. GM officials refused to negotiate, so the “sit-downers” barricaded themselves inside, while picketers guarded the gates against police and GM henchmen.

At 88, Geraldine Blankinship is one of a dwindling number of surviving strikers and their supporters from the event. “It wasn’t all about money,” she says. “The conditions were inhumane in the plants.” Blankinship recalls the unusually hot summer of 1936, when workers would “pass out on the line and they wouldn’t even drag them away. You’d have to step over them.” Terror ruled the shop floor. Workers who left the line for the restroom were followed, timed, and harassed. Union organizers were beaten by company goons.

On Jan. 11, 1937, police stormed the barricaded strikers, firing tear gas and bullets. Workers fought back by hurling rocks and hinges and blasting water from fire hoses. At the battle’s end, 27 people had been injured. Thirteen strikers and their sympathizers suffered gunshot wounds. Murphy ordered National Guard troops to Flint. “When we heard that, we thought the strikers were going to get dragged out, maybe even shot down,” says Blankinship, whose father was one of the sit-downers. “But the governor sent them to protect the workers. He didn’t want a bloodbath.”

Murphy ignored a court order to evict the strikers from the plants. While guardsmen kept the peace, he skillfully negotiated talks between the UAW and GM. Both sides gave concessions. On Feb. 11, Murphy announced that an agreement had been reached. The biggest prize was the world’s largest carmaker agreeing to recognize the UAW as the sole bargaining agent for GM workers. After 44 days, what is generally acknowledged as the most important strike in labor history had ended peacefully and with the UAW in firm control of its destiny. From that point, the UAW took off, gaining instant credibility.

Murphy was not against big business; he simply wanted employers to behave more humanely. “We have got to realize that no one is secure until all are secure,” he explained, “that injustice to anyone is injustice to everyone.” When strikers shut down several Detroit auto plants in 1937, he again refused to send in state troops to evict the squatters. Soon Chrysler and other large employers had no choice but to capitulate.

As governor, Murphy could boast the most reform-minded administration in decades. He did away with the spoils system among state employees and installed a civil-service system. The sick, elderly, indigent, and jobless benefited from new legislation. When he lost his re-election bid in 1938, many thought the defeat was payback for his pro-union sympathies, though Lincoln points out that the incumbent was running in an off-year election without the benefit of Roosevelt’s name at the top of the ticket.

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