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The Honorable G. Mennen Williams
Class of: 1936

Source: Portrait from the Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society website


G. Mennen Williams served as a Michigan Supreme Court justice from 1971 through 1986.
G. Mennen Williams was born into a wealthy Detroit family on February 23, 1911. His maternal grandfather was the founder of the Mennen line of shaving lotions and, as a result, Williams was forever known as "Soapy."
He attended Salisbury School in Connecticut and went to Princeton for his undergraduate work. In 1933, upon his Princeton graduation, he entered the University of Michigan Law School where he broke from family tradition and gave allegiance to the Democratic Party. During law school, he met Nancy Lace Quirk and was married on June 26, 1937.
Williams was a member of the law firm Griffiths, Williams and Griffiths from 1936 until 1941. When World War II broke out, Williams enlisted in the United States Navy. He served in the Pacific Theater and earned ten battle stars. He returned to Michigan as a Lieutenant Commander in 1946.
Williams worked in Detroit as the deputy director of the Office of Price Administration (OPA) and in 1947, Governor Kim Sigler appointed him to the Liquor Control Commission. In 1948, he decided to enter the race for governor but had to get by without the family fortune since his mother would not contribute funds to a Democratic campaign. When he won the gubernatorial election, Williams' brother Dick gave him a green and white polka-dot tie for an inaugural gift and it became Soapy's trademark from then on. He held the office of governor for 12 years. When he decided not to run for governor again in 1960, he was appointed assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, a position he held for five years.
From 1968 until 1969, Williams served as United States Ambassador to the Philippines and returned to the U.S. in 1970. He was then elected to the Michigan Supreme Court and served until 1987.
--  From the Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society website
Williams, G. Mennen (23 Feb. 1911-2 Feb. 1988), governor and diplomat, was born Gerhard Mennen Williams in Detroit, Michigan, the son of Henry P. Williams, the head of a pickle company and a realtor, and Elma Mennen, the daughter of Gerhard Mennen, who had founded the Mennen Company, manufacturer of toiletries. Nicknamed "Soapy," young Williams grew up in an advantaged Episcopalian and Republican home. After excelling at Salisbury (Conn.) Preparatory School, he enrolled at Princeton, where he earned varsity athletic letters and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1933. President of the Young Republican Club at Princeton, he campaigned for Herbert Hoover in 1932. Moved by his readings on the Industrial Revolution and its impact on the English working poor, however, Williams began to shift his allegiance to the Democratic party and soon enthusiastically endorsed the New Deal. Aiming for a career in politics, he entered the University of Michigan Law School, where he earned a J.D. in 1936. In 1937 he married Nancy Lace Quirk, a liberal social services student, with whom he had three children.
After working with the Social Security Board from 1936 to 1937, Williams was called back to serve as Michigan assistant attorney general by Governor Frank Murphy, his political mentor. In 1939 Williams became the executive assistant to Murphy, who had been appointed U.S. attorney general. When Murphy became a Supreme Court justice in 1940, Williams stayed on briefly in the Justice Department before shifting to the Office of Price Administration (OPA). From 1942 to 1946 he served in the U.S. Navy, working as an air combat intelligence officer in the Pacific, rising to the rank of lieutenant commander, and receiving a number of combat awards. He then returned as deputy director of the Michigan office of the OPA before becoming a partner in the Detroit law firm of Griffiths, Williams, and Griffiths in 1947. Later that year Williams accepted an appointment from Republican governor Kim Sigler to the state liquor control commission, a position that permitted him to travel widely in the state.
Backed by the Michigan Democratic Club, a new liberal organization created by his law partners, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations's Political Action Committee, Williams sought the governorship in 1948 on a nine-point platform of undiluted New Dealism. Calling for improvements in education, housing, veterans' benefits, unemployment compensation, roads, and farm support, Williams stressed his support for civil rights and advocated repeal of Michigan's restrictive "little Taft-Hartley" labor act.
After a narrow primary victory, Williams and his wife mortgaged their home and drove their own automobile throughout upstate Michigan, campaigning exhaustively in the state's rural, heavily Republican hamlets. His Republican family refused to contribute to his campaign, and he had inherited none of the Mennen fortune in 1948. The handsome, 200-pound Williams adopted a polka-dot green bow tie as his political trademark, called square dances, and developed an unpretentious, folksy approach to the electorate. The spectacle of the Princeton-educated patrician mixing so easily with ordinary voters brought derision from his critics. His supporters, however, compared him to Franklin Roosevelt. One newspaper editor concluded, "Soapy is part cornball, part egghead."
Williams easily defeated Governor Sigler, even though the Republican national ticket carried the state that year. Because Michigan held gubernatorial elections every two years, Williams campaigned almost continuously among the state's diverse population. Reelected five times, he called for an expansive government. While Williams's liberal-labor coalition readily gained control of the state Democratic party, Republican critics argued that United Automobile Workers President Walter Reuther "controlled" Williams. When Williams refused to extradite a union tough accused of violence in a major strike in Wisconsin, right-wing critics lambasted the governor as a stooge of labor leaders. Throughout his twelve years as governor, Williams battled with a Republican-controlled legislature over tax policy. Republicans advocated an increase in sales and use taxes, while the governor proposed corporate profits taxes and a graduated personal income tax. Stalemated, Michigan was unable to resolve the differences and faced bankruptcy in the late 1950s.
Williams emerged as a significant national leader, frequently mentioned as a possible presidential or vice presidential candidate in 1952, 1956, and 1960, despite his troubles in Michigan. As Republicans made gains nationally among African-American and white ethnic voters as well as among rank-and-file union members, Williams's supporters argued that he was uniquely positioned to reverse these changes. Southern segregationist Democrats, on the other hand, found Williams's labor record and advanced civil rights position unacceptable. Distracted by his state's economic problems in 1959, Williams decided not to contest Senator John Kennedy for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination. At the convention he supported Kennedy but opposed the selection of Lyndon Johnson for the vice presidential nomination.
While he had hoped for a cabinet-level appointment, Williams settled for the new post of assistant secretary of state for African affairs. Barnstorming the African continent, he urged a policy of "Africa for the Africans." When white settlers objected, Williams explained that whites, too, had a place on the continent, so long as they expected no special privileges. In 1961 and 1962 Williams played a significant role in negotiating a settlement between the forces of the newly liberated Congo (Zaire) and the secessionist Katanga province. Williams's influence dissipated considerably under the Johnson administration, but he stayed on in the State Department until early 1966.
At that time Williams returned to Michigan to run for the U.S. Senate, but he faced a serious challenge for the nomination from Detroit mayor Jerome Cavanagh. While he defeated Cavanagh, Williams lost the general election to Republican incumbent Robert Griffin. From May 1968 to March 1969 he served as ambassador to the Philippines. In 1970 he won election to the state supreme court, where he concerned himself with establishing a uniform system of justice throughout the state. Williams served as chief justice between 1982 and his mandatory retirement in 1986.
Williams's enormous energy helped restructure the Democratic party and make it competitive in Michigan politics. While he served abroad during the 1960s, his inclusive political style and especially his staunch support of civil rights foreshadowed changes in the national party during the Johnson administration. Williams died in Detroit.
--From the American National Biography
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