On this day in 1960: ‘Soapy’ declines to run for re-election

    Michigan Governor G. Mennen Williams, and Neil Staebler of Ann Arbor, at Democratic National Convention, 1952 | Wystan, Flickr

    G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams on March 3, 1960, announced that he would not seek a seventh term as Michigan governor.

    That was during the era when governors served two-year terms. The Democrat governed with a Republican-led Legislature during his entire 12 years.

    Born on Feb. 23, 1911, in Detroit, Williams earned the nickname “Soapy” because his maternal grandfather was the founder of the Mennen brand of men’s personal care products, now marketed by the Colgate-Palmolive company.

    Williams attended the Salisbury School, an exclusive Episcopalian preparatory institution, in Connecticut. He graduated from Princeton University in 1933 and earned a degree from the University of Michigan Law School in 1936.

    Sporting his signature green bow tie with white polka dots, Williams led with a pro-environment and civil rights agenda. He appointed several African-Americans to key posts, including Charles Jones, Wade McCree, and Elvin Davenport to Detroit judgeships. He appointed future state Supreme Court justice Otis Smith to the Michigan Public Service Commission.

    Mackinac Bridge | Creative Commons

    Williams’ most notable accomplishment was overseeing the construction of the Mackinac Bridge, which linked Michigan’s lower and upper peninsulas. Completed in 1957, it was the world’s longest suspension bridge.

    After his tenure as governor, Williams served in the President John F. Kennedy administration as assistant secretary of state for African Affairs. During the 1970s and 1980s, he was a justice on the Michigan Supreme Court.

    He died in 1988.

    Ken Coleman
    Ken Coleman reports on Southeast Michigan, education, civil rights and voting rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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