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G. Mennen Williams

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G. Mennen Williams
59th Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court
In office
January 1, 1983 – January 1, 1987
Preceded byJohn Warner Fitzgerald
Succeeded byDorothy Comstock Riley
Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court
In office
January 1, 1971 – January 1, 1987
Preceded byJohn R. Dethmers
Harry F. Kelly
Succeeded byRobert P. Griffin
11th United States Ambassador to the Philippines
In office
June 17, 1968 – April 7, 1969
PresidentLyndon B. Johnson
Richard Nixon
Preceded byWilliam McCormick Blair Jr.
Succeeded byHenry A. Byroade
2nd Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs
In office
February 1, 1961 – March 23, 1966
PresidentJohn F. Kennedy
Lyndon B. Johnson
Preceded byJoseph C. Satterthwaite
Succeeded byJoseph Palmer II
41st Governor of Michigan
In office
January 1, 1949 – January 1, 1961
LieutenantJohn W. Connolly
William C. Vandenberg
Clarence A. Reid
Philip A. Hart
John B. Swainson
Preceded byKim C. Sigler
Succeeded byJohn B. Swainson
Personal details
Gerhard Mennen Williams

(1911-02-23)February 23, 1911
Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
DiedFebruary 2, 1988(1988-02-02) (aged 76)
Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
Nancy Lace Quirk
(m. 1937)
EducationPrinceton University (AB)
University of Michigan (JD)
Military service
Allegiance United States
Branch/service United States Navy
Years of service1942–1946
RankLieutenant Commander
Battles/warsWorld War II

Gerhard Mennen "Soapy" Williams (February 23, 1911 – February 2, 1988) was an American politician who served as the 41st governor of Michigan, elected in 1948 and serving six two-year terms in office. He later served as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and as chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.

Williams advocated for civil rights, racial equality, and justice for the poor. As assistant secretary of state, his remark that "what we want for the Africans is what they want for themselves", reported in the press as "Africa for the Africans", sparked controversy at the time.[1]

A staunch liberal, Williams was described by the Chicago Tribune as a political reformer who "helped forge the alliance between Democrats, blacks and union voters in the late 1940s that began a strong liberal tradition in Michigan."[2]

Personal life and early career


Williams was born in Detroit, Michigan, to Henry P. Williams and Elma Mennen. His mother came from a prominent family; her father, Gerhard Heinrich Mennen, was the founder of the Mennen brand of men's personal care products. Because of this, Williams acquired the popular nickname "Soapy".[3]

Williams attended the Salisbury School in Connecticut, an exclusive Episcopal preparatory school. He graduated from Princeton University with an A.B. in history in 1933 after completing a senior thesis titled "Social Significance of Henry Ford".[4] At Princeton, Williams was a member of the Quadrangle Club.[5] He then received a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Michigan Law School.[6] While at law school, Williams became affiliated with the Democratic Party, departing from his family's strong ties to the Republican Party.

Williams met Nancy Quirk on a blind date while attending the university. She was the daughter of D. L. Quirk and Julia (Trowbridge) Quirk, a prominent Ypsilanti family involved in banking and paper milling. Her brother, Daniel Quirk, was later mayor of Ypsilanti.[7] The couple married in 1937 and had three children; a son, G. Mennen Williams Jr., and two daughters, Nancy Ketterer III and Wendy Stock Williams.

He worked with the law firm Griffiths, Williams and Griffiths from 1936 to 1941. Law firm partners included Hicks Griffiths and Martha Griffiths, later elected a member of Congress and lieutenant governor of Michigan.

During World War II, he served four years in the United States Navy as an air combat intelligence officer in the South Pacific. He achieved the rank of lieutenant commander and earned ten battle stars. He later served as the deputy director of the Office of Price Administration from 1946 to 1947, and was named to the Michigan Liquor Control Commission in 1947.

Governor of Michigan

Williams with Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in Tel Aviv, October 1, 1959

On November 2, 1948, Williams was elected governor of Michigan, defeating Governor Kim Sigler with the support of labor unions and dissident Republicans. He was elected to a record six two-year terms in that post.[a] Among his accomplishments was the construction of the Mackinac Bridge. He appeared on the cover of Time's September 15, 1952, issue, sporting his signature green bow tie with white polka dots.

Williams believed the Michigan Department of Corrections was underfunded and outdated, and that the state's prisons were dangerously overcrowded. While visiting Marquette Branch Prison in July 1950, Williams was attacked and briefly held hostage by a group of three inmates hoping to escape. The governor had a knife held to his throat, but his attackers were soon overpowered by his bodyguard and prison employees. One of his attackers was shot dead. Williams was unharmed and mostly unshaken, choosing to continue on with his tour of the Upper Peninsula. He used the attack to his political advantage, blaming it on budget cuts made by the Republican-controlled Michigan Legislature.[11] Later in the same year, Williams gained prominence for his refusal to extradite Haywood Patterson, one of the Scottsboro Boys, who had escaped from prison in Alabama in 1948 and hidden in Detroit for two years.[12]

Also during Williams's 12 years in office, a farm-marketing program was sanctioned, teachers' salaries, school facilities and educational programs were improved and there were also commissions formed to research problems related to aging, sex offenders and adolescent behavior.

Williams named the first woman judge in the state's history as well as the first black judge.[2] As a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1956, he unsuccessfully sought the vice-presidential nomination. At the 1952, 1956 and 1960 conventions he fought for insertion of a strong civil rights plank in the party platform. He strongly opposed the selection of Lyndon Baines Johnson as vice president in 1960, feeling that Johnson was "ideologically wrong on civil rights". Williams made public his opposition, shouting "No" when a call was made for Johnson's nomination to be made unanimous. He was the only delegate to publicly oppose Johnson's nomination.[13]

His final term in office was marked by high-profile struggles with the Republican-controlled state legislature and a near-shutdown of the state government. He therefore chose not to seek reelection in 1960. Williams left office on January 1, 1961.

Post-gubernatorial years

Williams with President of Tanganyika Julius Nyerere and President Kennedy in 1961

After leaving office in 1961, Williams assumed the post of Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in the administration of President John F. Kennedy. His remark at a press conference that "what we want for the Africans is what they want for themselves", reported in the press as "Africa for the Africans", sparked controversy. Whites in South Africa and Rhodesia, and in the British and Portuguese colonies contended that Williams wanted them expelled from the continent. Williams defended his remarks, saying that he included white Africans as Africans. Williams was defended by Kennedy at a press conference, saying that "Africa for the Africans does not seem to me to be an unreasonable statement." Kennedy said that Williams made it clear he was referring to Africans of all colors, and "I don't know who else Africa should be for."[14]

He served in this post until early 1966, when he resigned to unsuccessfully challenge Republican US Senator Robert P. Griffin. Two years later, he was named by President Lyndon B. Johnson to be U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, where he served less than a year.[15]

In 1969 he wrote a book on the emergence of modern Africa, Africa for the Africans.

Michigan Supreme Court

Supreme Court Justice G. Mennen Williams

Williams was elected to the Michigan Supreme Court in 1970 and was named chief justice in 1983, serving in that capacity through 1986.[16] Thus, like William Howard Taft in the federal government,[17] he occupied the highest executive and judicial offices in Michigan government.

Retirement and death


Williams left the court on January 1, 1987, and died the following year in Detroit at the age of 76, three weeks before his 77th birthday. He was temporarily entombed at Evergreen Cemetery in Detroit and there was a formal military funeral for him. After winter his remains were interred at the Protestant Cemetery on Mackinac Island. His New York Times obituary said of Williams's diplomatic service: "Traveling widely, he studied the needs of countries in the birth pangs of independence and brought their pleas for American investment and trust to Washington."[3]



The state government's law building, G. Mennen Williams Building in Lansing, constructed in 1967,[18] was dedicated in Williams's honor on June 1, 1997.[19]

A G. Mennen Williams dinner is an annual event held by the Ionia County Democratic Party each July at the World's Largest Free Fair in Ionia, Michigan. Originally called the Democratic Tent Dinner at its start in the mid-40s, it was renamed after Soapy in 1988 as a way to pay homage to the man that paved the way for dinners to be held at the fair. The Ionia Republican Party had held dinners at the fairgrounds during the 1940s, but the Democrats could not until Soapy stepped up and gained the party equal access in 1949.[citation needed]

A portion of Interstate 75 in Cheboygan County is known as the G. Mennen Williams Highway.[20]

At Detroit Mercy Law (formerly: University of Detroit Mercy School of Law), the Moot Court Board of Advocates hosts the annual G. Mennen Williams Moot Court Competition[21] for all first-year students through their Applied Legal Theory and Analysis course. First year students draft a dispositive motion and brief in support as part of their writing course, and argue their position before a mock tribunal.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Williams holds the record for most terms, but not the longest tenure in office by years served. The term of office was increased to four years in the Constitution of 1963 for elections starting in 1966.[8] John Engler served three four-year terms, 1991–2003, equaling Williams's 12-year tenure.[9] Both are surpassed by William Milliken, who served from 1969 to 1983, just short of 14 years.[10]


  1. ^ Noer, Thomas (2006). Soapy: A Biography of G. Mennen Williams. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 978-0-472-03186-3.
  2. ^ a b Franklin, Stephen (February 3, 1988). "G. Mennen Williams, Ex-Michigan Governor". Chicago Tribune. Archived from the original on December 30, 2013. Retrieved December 28, 2013.
  3. ^ a b Saxon, Wolfgang (February 3, 1988). "G. Mennen Williams, 76, Is Dead". The New York Times. Archived from the original on January 25, 2017. Retrieved December 28, 2014.
  4. ^ Williams, Gerhard Mennen (1933). Social Significance of Henry Ford (Senior Theses). Princeton University. Archived from the original on June 4, 2020. Retrieved June 4, 2020.
  5. ^ U.S. 1 Staff (December 6, 2017). "Ranking Princeton's Eating Clubs". Archived from the original on April 17, 2021. Retrieved February 19, 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  6. ^ Hanley, James P. (2007). Politics and Government in Michigan (5th ed.). Boston: McGraw Hill. p. 91. ISBN 978-0-07-338783-3.
  7. ^ Kestenbaum, Lawrence. "The Political Graveyard: Index to Politicians: Quinnan to Quynn". Political Graveyard. Archived from the original on September 29, 2007. Retrieved July 7, 2007.
  8. ^ "Length of Terms of Office of State Governors throughout American History". The Green Papers: Historical Data. Archived from the original on January 31, 2023. Retrieved November 21, 2022.
  9. ^ "Gov. John Engler". National Governors Association. January 2011. Archived from the original on June 2, 2024. Retrieved June 2, 2024.
  10. ^ Coleman, Ken (March 26, 2022). "On this day in 1922: William Milliken, Michigan's longest-serving governor, is born". Michigan Advance. Archived from the original on November 21, 2022. Retrieved November 21, 2022.
  11. ^ Jaworowski, Matt (July 8, 2022). "July 8, 1950: Michigan's Governor Narrowly Avoids Being Taken Prison Hostage". Grand Rapids, Michigan: WOOD-TV. Archived from the original on August 17, 2022. Retrieved June 2, 2024.
  12. ^ Gordon-Reed, Annette, ed. (2002). Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History. Oxford University Press. p. 137. ISBN 978-0-19-512280-0. Retrieved March 31, 2016 – via Google Books.
  13. ^ Noer (2006), pp. 165, 210, 215.
  14. ^ Noer (2006), pp. 239–240.
  15. ^ "Williams, G. Mennen". Encyclopedia of Detroit. Detroit Historical Society. Archived from the original on February 24, 2024. Retrieved June 2, 2024.
  16. ^ "G. Mennen Williams". Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society. Archived from the original on January 31, 2024. Retrieved June 2, 2024.
  17. ^ "William Howard Taft, 1921–1930". Supreme Court Historical Society. Archived from the original on April 11, 2024. Retrieved June 2, 2024.
  18. ^ "G. Mennen Williams Building". SkyscraperPage.com. Archived from the original on December 31, 2013. Retrieved December 28, 2013.
  19. ^ Conley, Stephen D. "Michigan Lawyers in History: G. Mennen Williams, Michigan's Lawyer Public Servant". Michigan Bar Journal. Archived from the original on June 2, 2024. Retrieved June 2, 2024.
  20. ^ Michigan Department of Transportation. "Memorial Highways". Michigan Department of Transportation. Archived from the original on December 30, 2013. Retrieved December 28, 2013.
  21. ^ "Competitive Opportunities; Internal Competitions". University of Detroit Mercy Law. Archived from the original on November 17, 2016. Retrieved November 8, 2016.

Further reading

  • "The Mighty Mac at 50". Michigan History. Vol. 19, no. 4 (Special ed.). July–August 2007.
Party political offices
Preceded by Democratic nominee for Governor of Michigan
1948, 1950, 1952, 1954, 1956, 1958
Succeeded by
Preceded by Democratic nominee for
U.S. Senator from Michigan (Class 2)

1966, 1966
Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by Governor of Michigan
January 1, 1949 – January 1, 1961
Succeeded by
Government offices
Preceded by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs
February 1, 1961 – March 23, 1966
Succeeded by
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by United States Ambassador to the Philippines
June 17, 1968 – April 7, 1969
Succeeded by
Legal offices
Preceded by Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court
January 1, 1971 – January 1, 1987
Succeeded by
Preceded by Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court
January 1, 1983 – January 1, 1987
Succeeded by