Who is Frank Murphy?

Built is 1968, the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice is named for Supreme Court justice Frank Murphy who was appointed to this position in 1940 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and served until his death at age 59 on July 19, 1949. Known for his liberal views, Murphy wrote a scathing rebuke in response to the 1944 majority ruling in Korematsu v. United States which upheld the constitutionality of the government’s internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. He described the decision as the “legalization of racism.”

In his earlier career as Detroit Circuit Court judge, Murphy presided over an important 1925 civil rights trial in which Dr. Ossian Sweet and members of his family stood trial for murder. Sweet, an African American, moved his family into a white neighborhood. An angry mob of white residents retaliated by congregating outside the home and lobbing rocks and threats at the family huddling in fear inside. Shots fired from inside the house killed one of intimidators. High-profile defense attorney Clarence Darrow represented the Sweets, and in a stunning verdict, the all-white jury acquitted the defendants of murder.

Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

Murphy had an impressive political career including stints as mayor of Detroit during the early years of the Great Depression and 35th Governor of Michigan. During Murphy’s mayoral tenure, he lobbied for federal aid to cities, implemented programs to feed the hungry, and balanced city books. As governor, he’s credited for helping resolve the 1937 strike by General Motors workers.
Ranked seventh best mayor in the book The American Mayor: The Best & Worst Big-City Leaders and just three spots below Hazen Pingree, another beloved Detroit mayor, author Melvin E. Holli wrote:

“Murphy deserves wider recognition, especially because his postmayoral career of upward movement is remarkable and striking for a mayor. After service in city hall, Murphy rose rapidly to become governor-general of the Philippines, then governor of Michigan, and next a U.S. Attorney General. He ended his public career as a U.S. Supreme Court justice. Few big-city mayors have experienced such dramatic and visible upward political mobility. Even for the best of them, the mayor’s chair is generally a terminal office”

Outside the courthouse stands “The Hand of God,” one of the final works by Carl Milles, a noted sculptor and former professor at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Controversy erupted at the 1949 unveiling because the newly created man which God holds in his hand is naked. The “inappropriate” commission was placed in storage until U.A.W. leader Walter Reuther, who had been privy to the design, disregarded objections and had the statue installed on a tall pedestal.

Recently an agreement was reached between Wayne County executive Warren Evans and a prominent developer to relocate the criminal justice campus including the courthouse, a juvenile detention center, two jails and an unfinished jail to another location and redevelop this prime downtown real estate. No word yet if the new courthouse will bear Murphy’s name.

Frank Murphy Hall of Justice / 1441 St. Antoine Street, Detroit

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