On this day in 1976: Phil Hart, the ‘Conscience of the U.S. Senate,’ dies at 64

By: - December 26, 2022 5:45 am

Detroit attorney Damon J. Keith and U.S. Sen. Phil Hart (D-Birmingham) in 1961 in Detroit. | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, J Edward Bailey III collection

On Dec. 26, 1976, Philip Aloysius Hart, Michigan’s senior U.S. senator, died of cancer at 64.

Hart, who was first elected to the seat in 1958, had decided not seek reelection in 1976 after his condition worsened.  

The Democrat was known as the “Conscience of the Senate” because of his principled stance on several issues such as civil rights legislation and rejecting expansion of the war in southeast Asia during the 1960s and early ‘70s.

Hart, for example, cast yes votes on landmark civil rights legislation in 1964 and voting rights legislation in 1965. He was a leading speaker during a large anti- Vietnam War rally held at the University of Michigan in 1969.

“Those who are not with us tonight, who feel we do a disservice to our country, will eventually acknowledge they should have been here,” said Hart during the event that was held at Michigan Stadium.  

Hart also introduced legislation that created Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park, which is located near Lake Michigan. The visitor center bears his name.

Sleeping Bear Dunes | Susan J. Demas

Mark Brewer, an elections lawyer and former Michigan Democratic Party chair, was in high school during Hart’s final years in the U.S. Senate but nonetheless “gets goosebumps” when thinking about the late lawmaker’s legacy.  

“He was respected by Democrats and Republicans,” said Brewer. 

Hart, a Pennsylvania native, earned degrees from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in 1934 and the University of Michigan Law School in 1937. He was admitted to the Michigan Bar Association in 1938 and began practicing law in Detroit. 

In 1943, Hart married Jane “Janey” Briggs, the daughter of Walter and Jane Cameron Briggs. Janey was an aviator and later a founding member of the National Organization for Women. The couple had eight children. Walter Briggs was a major industrial plant leader who, at one time, owned the Detroit Tigers, Major League Baseball team.

Phil Hart served in World War II, where he suffered injuries during the D-Day invasion in Normandy, France. Hart was awarded a Purple Heart and other honors for his distinguished service. 

He recovered at the Percy Jones Army Hospital in Battle Creek, where he met fellow veterans Bob Dole and Daniel Inouye. All three men eventually were elected to the U.S. Senate. The Hart–Dole–Inouye Federal Center in Battle Creek is now named in their honor.

Prior to his tenure in the U.S. Senate, Hart served as U.S. attorney for southeastern Michigan in 1952 and 1953. In 1954, the Birmingham resident ran for Michigan lieutenant governor during then-Gov. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams’ tenure. At the time, the lieutenant governor candidate appeared on the ballot separately from the gubernatorial candidate. Hart and Williams, however, were law school classmates and campaigned together. In addition, Hart had served as a legal advisor to Williams during the early years of his tenure. 

Hart won the election and served two terms as LG before ascending to the U.S. Senate.


President Lyndon Johnson meets with Michigan political leaders at Cobo Hall in Detroit in 1964. He is joined by former Gov. John Swainson, U.S. Sen. Phil Hart, former Gov. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams and U.S. Rep. Neil Staebler (D-at large). | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, Tony Spina Collection

During an October 1976 retirement event hosted by Michigan’s congressional delegation on Capitol Hill, Hart shared thoughts on his service. The Detroit Free Press wrote that the voice of the “sight, white-bearded man … grew thin as a blade cutting ice, but he kept it firm.”

“I look back on my years here and I feel good about them,” said Hart. 

After his death two months later, funeral services were held at St. Matthew’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Washington, D.C. He was buried on Mackinac Island, where he had a home.

The Hart family wanted the services to be “very simple,” according to Detroit Free Press reporting. His coffin was purchased through a local burial society and cost about $150, as opposed to an average cost of $700.

An indoor, riverfront public plaza on Detroit’s riverfront was named in his honor in 1978.

Robert Griffin, Hart’s Michigan U.S. Senate colleague, described the late lawmaker as “an incomparable senator, a true statesman and a dear friend.”

“We shall miss him very much,” said Griffin, a Republican, at the time of Hart’s death. 

Hart’s name was added to the Michigan Democratic Party headquarters in Lansing alongside former U.S. President John F. Kennedy. 

For the last 60 years, the Oakland County Democratic Party has held the Phil Hart Dinner as a fundraising and tribute to the late U.S. senator.

In 1982, a new U.S. Senate office building in Washington opened and was named in his honor. Above the main entrance to the building, an inscription describes Hart this way: 

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.), June 1, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

“A man of incorruptible integrity and personal courage strengthened by inner grace and outer gentleness. … He advanced the cause of human justice, promoted the welfare of the common man and improved the quality of life. … His humility and ethics earned him his place as the conscience of the Senate.”

Michigan U.S. Sens. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) have offices in the Hart building. 

“Senator Phil Hart was known as the ‘Conscience of the Senate’ for his commitment to the institution and dedicated efforts to build a better future for children and future generations,” Peters told the Advance last week. “I’m honored to work every day in Washington in the Hart Senate Office Building – which bears his name and where my office is located – to continue the legacy he set for Michigan in the U.S. Senate.” 


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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history and civil 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.