Advance Notice: Briefs

Fish out of water: ‘Soapy’ Williams was an environmentalist before it was cool

By: - December 4, 2018 5:56 am

G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams, the lanky, bow-tied, Michigan governor of the late 1940s and 1950s, is generally remembered as a progressive who supported civil rights and fought for the “little guy.”

But the Grosse Pointe Farms millionaire and New Deal Democrat also was a pioneer environmentalist.

Consider this: While speaking to the Michigan United Conservation Clubs on December 4, 1948 — 70 years ago today — he pledged to make cleaning up our streams one of his first goals. A few months earlier in Menominee before the Michigan United Conservation Clubs board of directors, Williams stated:

“If pollution ruins the fishing in our streams and lakes for just one season the tourist industry will suffer irreparable harm. I promise, if elected, to put real teeth into legislation controlling stream pollution.”

He also charged that “big business” had blocked proper safeguards against pollution. In March 1950, Michigan became the first state in the union to recognize National Wildlife Restoration Week. Williams, through proclamation, asked that special attention be given to conservation education in schools.  

Williams, who was called “Soapy” because his grandfather’s company produced bathroom items like deodorant and aftershave, served a record six, two-year terms as Michigan governor between 1949 and 1961. After choosing not to seek re-election, he was tapped by U.S. President John F. Kennedy to serve as assistant secretary of state for African affairs. Williams returned to Michigan in 1966 and failed to win a U.S. Senate seat.

As a member of the Michigan Supreme Court in 1974, he penned the majority opinion on a case that allowed public access to records of companies accused of water and air pollution. The next year, Williams and the state high court earned national attention with the case Ray v. Mascon County Drain Commission. The decision upheld Michigan’s Environmental Protection Act.  

“He argued that addressing things like air and water pollution are the responsibility of government,” said Thomas Noer, a professor at Kenosha, Wisconsin-based Carthage College and author of Soapy: A Biography of G. Mennen Williams.

Williams died in 1988. The state of Michigan dedicated the G. Mennen Williams Building in Lansing in 1997.

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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.