If you were drawing up a list of persons whose very significant contribution to the nation and the world were strongly linked to their accomplishments in Detroit, Frank Murphy would likely be included. He was, arguably, the most important political and judicial figures to come from Detroit. His parents, Irish immigrants, lived in Harbor Springs, Michigan where Frank Murphy was born in April, 1890. His father practiced law. Frank Murphy enrolled at the University of Michigan and earned a Bachelor’s degree in 1912 and a law degree two years later. He then continued his legal studies in London and at Trinity College in Dublin. After serving in World War I, Murphy opened a law office in Detroit and taught at the University of Detroit Law School. From 1919 until 1922, he was an Assistant Federal District Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. In that role, he opened the first Civil Rights Section anywhere in the federal judiciary.
In 1920, Murphy ran for the office of Recorder’s Court judge in Detroit but he lost that election. The Republicans swept in that year as the voters put Warren Harding in the White House and his coat tails carried Republicans to office most places they were on the ballot. Murphy ran again for Recorder’s Court judge in 1923, won and served for seven years. In that capacity, he presided over the most important and contentious Civil Rights trial of the decade. Dr. Ossian Sweet, a black physician, purchased a home at the corner of Garland and Charlevoix on Detroit’s east side in 1925. When he moved into his residence, his home was surrounded by a menacing crowd that the police did not disperse. At one point, Dr. Sweet felt threatened and feared that his home would be destroyed killing all occupants. Someone in his home shot into the crowd killing one person and wounding another. Police officers who were standing outside immediately arrested all occupants of Dr. Sweet’s residence. They were charged with first degree murder.
The first trial in Recorder’s Court ended in a hung jury. In the retrial, Dr. Sweet’s brother, Henry Sweet, stipulated to being the shooter. Clarence Darrow defended Dr. Sweet and others in the home. Darrow argued that a black person had the same rights as any white person to defend his home if threatened by a hostile crowd, even if his home were in a white neighborhood. The jury acquitted Dr. Sweet and the prosecution decided to drop charges against all other defendants. Frank Murphy was praised for his excellence supervision of the litigation. The trial was conducted at a time when Michigan support for the Ku Klux Klan was at a peak.
In the fall of 1930, Frank Murphy won a special election for the mayor’s office in Detroit defeating Charles Bowles. Bowles, similar to Kwame Kilpatrick, was removed from office while serving his term. In 1925, Charles Bowles ran as the Ku Klux Klan candidate for mayor and probably won. However, he was a write-in candidate. The Republicans and Democrats did not want a Klan man in the mayor’s office. They successfully persuaded a local judge to rule that if a voter did not write the exact name Charles Bowles, the vote should not be counted. Bowles lost about 15,000 votes with that decision in 1926. He came back to win the mayor’s office in 1929 election. However, shortly after taking office his critics argued that he was cooperating with the criminals, especially bootleggers, by having the police call off many of their enforcement activities. Signatures were gathered for his recall less than six month after he took office. Thus Bowles lost to Frank Murphy in a special election in fall, 1930.
During his term as mayor, Frank Murphy faced the challenges of the Depression. While there are few accurate statistics, unemployment in Detroit probably rose well about 25 percent. Unemployed men would regularly gather in Grand Circus Park where a variety of speakers encouraged an end to capitalism and a radical restructuring of economic systems. In Detroit, as in a few other cities, the Communist Party was active in promoting fundamental changes. They also encouraged Hunger Marches while portraying capitalists such as Henry Ford as very rich men who continued to exploit workers during the Depression. Many conservatives argued for a forceful crackdown on the protestors who were portrayed as interested in destroying the democratic nation and capitalist. were demanded an end to capitalism as it was known at that time. Mayor Murphy was seen as a supporter of the protesters and viewed as doing a good job during one of Detroit’s more challenging decades.
After serving a mayor for four years, Murphy accepted an appointment from President Roosevelt to be the Governor General of the Philippine colony in 1933. Two years, later Congress enacted the legislation that would give those islands their freedom in 1946. The role of Governor General was changed to a new appointment, High Commissioner of the Philippines. Roosevelt also appointed Frank Murphy to that position and he served in Manila from 1935 to 1936 when he returned to Michigan and successfully campaigned to become governor.
Shortly after he took office in Lansing, Governor Murphy was confronted by the issue of the Sit-Down strikes, especially the one at the Chevrolet plant in Flint. Congress passed the Wagner Act in 1935 that required firms to recognize and bargain with legitimately constituted unions. Most employers said this was unconstitutional law, argued that the Constitution gave them a right to specify all the conditions of employment and refused to recognize any union. In 1937, the economy turned a corner and, for the first time in eight years, auto sales began to increase sharply. Seeing an opportunity to generate profit for the first time since the 1920s, auto firms speeded up their production lines and demanded much more work from assembly line personnel. The nascent United Auto Workers, however, knew that the Wagner Act gave them the power to demand that management recognize and then bargain with a union. This set the stage for sit-down strikes. Workers would go to their shops or stores, act peacefully but perform no work and remain for days on end while their friends brought them the food and blankets they needed. Managements immediately called for the police to arrest the sit-down workers as trespassers. Where there were very few sit-down strikers, the police could easily march into a shop or retail trade establishment, remove the workers and arrest them.
The auto plants, however, were a different issue. Thousands of workers were sitting down, far more than the number of police. Flint became a nation center for sit-down strikes as the UAW challenged GM. After sitting in for some days, GM won an order from a local judge requiring the Governor Murphy send in state troopers to remove the striking workers. Murphy questioned whether he should obey the order demanding that he act. On the one hand, workers and the families and friends cast many more votes than factory owners. In addition, Murphy knew that there would be violence, perhaps a great deal of bloody violence, if his state police were sent into plants to evict thousands of workers. He had good reason for concern since he might be asking state troopers to fire upon their fathers, brothers and sons who were sitting in at the Flint GM plant.
In a quandary about what to do, Governor Murphy called his friend, John L. Lewis, the legendary and highly successful leader of the United Mine Workers. Lewis listed to Murphy and then told him that he had a duty to send in state troopers to remove the sit-in strikers from the Flint GM plant. However, Lewis asked that Murphy delay for one day so that he, Lewis, could come to Flint. Lewis told Murphy that when he got to Flint, he would go to the biggest window on the highest floor of the GM factory, stand in that window and bear his chest. When he got to that site, Lewis told Murphy, that he should order the state troopers to start firing at the sit-down strikers. Lewis went on to say that as his body fell to the pavement below, Murphy would remember his grandfather in Ireland. Murphy’s grandfather had been killed by the British for promoting Irish independence. As the story goes, Murphy hung up his phone, kept his troopers out of Flint and suffered no penalties. GM quickly realized that they were overwhelmed by the power of the union and that elected officials did not have the personnel to evict sit-down strikers. Frank Murphy agreed to mediate a settlement and management quickly complied with the Wagner Act and recognized the UAW as a bargaining agent for their workers.
Frank Murphy served only two years in Lansing. He ran for reelection in November, 1938 but was defeated by the Republican candidate, Frank Fitzgerald, who had held the office before Murphy. In 1938, President Roosevelt nominated Murphy to serve as the Attorney General of the United States. He was approved by the Senate and held that office for about two years. He established the first office in the Department of Justice with an explicit mission to enforce the Bill of Rights and civil rights laws, the Civil Liberties Section of the Criminal Division.
Early in 1940, President Roosevelt nominated Frank Murphy to serve on the Supreme Court. He held that appointment until his death. However, from time to time when his schedule permitted, Murphy served as an infantry instructor at Fort Benning. On the court, Murphy developed an unusual reputation for his sympathy for aliens, racial minorities, criminals, dissenters and some war resisters. Then, as now, there was conflict between those who thought that the letter of the law should be followed even if the outcome seemed unfair and those who thought that the spirit of the law and an overall sense of justice should guide their decisions. Rather than focusing upon the exact law as written, Justice Murphy sought to render Solomon-like decisions that would bring about fairness. Murphy was frequently criticized for not being what we would call a strict constitutionalist. Justice Frankfurter opposed most of Murphy views, nicknamed him “The Saint,” and argued that Murphy reached decisions using his heart not his head.
Perhaps, the most famous opinion of Justice Murphy was his dissent in the famous Koromatsu litigation. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order #9066. It allowed the military to enforce a curfew against all Japanese-Americans living in the West Coast states. It also gave the military the authority to exclude Japanese-Americans from contact with others and, if necessary, to intern them in camps for the duration of World War II. The military started with curfews but, by the summer of 1942, ordered all persons of Japanese descent in California, Oregon and Washington to report for incarceration. Eventually 110,000 were moved into camps. This was done with any judicial proceedings.
Fred Korematsu—a Japanese American—failed to surrender for interment. He was arrested and convicted of violating Executive Order #9066. He litigated the matter and, on December 18, 1944, the Supreme Court issued their decision. It was a 6 to 3 decision upholding the right of the government to suspect the writ of habeas corpus during World War II. Justice Murphy strongly dissented and, for the first time in a Supreme Court decision, used the term racism. He contended that the Japanese were imprisoned, not because of any crime they committed or any strong evidence that they would support the enemy but, rather singularly because of their race. The decision of the Court in Korematsu still stands but Murphy’s dissent may be its most memorable component. Korematsu lived long enough to have his conviction overturned. Late in the war, Murphy took the lead in establishing a national committee that sought to protect the rights of Jews and to bring attention to what the National Socialists had done to Germany’s Jewish citizens.
Murphy died of a heart attack in Detroit at age 59.
The United Auto Workers paid for the erection of this commemorative monument. Walter Reuther supervised the selection of the sculpture. It is the last work of the famous Swedish sculptor, Carl Milles who, for years, had been the sculptor in residence at the Cranbrook Institution. Borrowing from Michaelangelo’s great work in the Sistine Chapel that shows God giving life to mankind, Milles sculpture portrays the left hand of God. In that hand is a newly created man with his head thrown back in awe at the magnificence of the universe. Milles created this sculpture in 1949 but it was put into storage since the man God created is shown nude. Walter Reuther believed the statue was acceptable and had it installed. Marshall Fredericks – Michigan’s most accomplished and productive sculptor had studied with Carl Milles designed, I believe, that he designed the pillar supporting this sculpture. Unfortunately, it is not very easy to appreciate this magnificent work of art. Gratiot is a busy and noisy street and the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice is certainly not one of Detroit’ architectural masterpieces.
The eminent University of Michigan historian, Sidney Fine, devoted much of his life to studying the life and accomplishments of Frank Murphy. I believe that he wrote at least four books about Murphy and several others about topics linked to Murphy such as the sit-down strikes, the United Auto Workers Union and the litigation about the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II.
Sculptor: Carl Milles
Date of Sculpture: 1949
Use in 2011: Public Sculpture
Biography of Frank Murphy, Sidney Fine; Frank Murphy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1975)
Return to Public Art and Sculpture
Return to Homepage