G. Mennen Williams was a man born to privilege but who devoted his life to public service. His career included stints as governor of Michigan from 1949 to 1960, under-secretary of state for African Affairs from 1961 to 1965, and Michigan Supreme Court justice from 1970 to 1986. Williams was born in Detroit, February 23, 1911, to Henry P. and Elma Mennen Williams. After prepping at the Salisbury School in Connecticut, he received his AB degree at Princeton in 1933. Williams finished his formal education by taking a JD degree from the University of Michigan in 1936.
Williams began his career as an attorney for the Social Security Board in Washington, D. C. In 1938 he returned to Michigan to serve as assistant attorney general under Raymond Starr. His public career took him back to Washington where he acted as executive assistant to United States Attorney General Frank Murphy, from 1939 to 1940. He continued to work for Murphy until 1941 as special assistant in the Criminal Division.
With American entry into World War II, Williams' public service took a new form. Despite being thirty-one years old and the father of a young son, Williams sought and gained a commission as a lieutenant in the U.S. Naval Reserve. He saw active duty as an air combat intelligence officer in the Pacific theater. After his discharge in 1946, Williams served as deputy director of the Office of Price Administration for Michigan until 1947. He then took a position as the Democratic member of the Michigan Liquor Control Commission and used this post to build a network of supporters for his gubernatorial campaign in 1948.
Williams was elected governor of Michigan on the Democratic ticket in November 1948. The result was something of an upset in that Michigan was a strongly Republican state. Williams continued to upset Michigan Republicans, narrowly winning re-election in 1950, then winning the 1952, 1954, 1956, and 1958 elections. His re-election in 1958 gave him an unprecedented sixth consecutive term.
By not running for state office in 1960, Williams left himself available to serve the nation as a whole. At one time thought to be under consideration for the vice-presidency, Williams was eventually tapped by President Kennedy to serve as undersecretary of state for African Affairs. Williams held this post until 1966 when he decided to campaign for the U.S. Senate; he lost to Robert Griffin. Williams returned to the public sphere when President Johnson appointed him ambassador to the Philippines in 1967. He held this post until Richard Nixon became president in January 1969.
Williams resumed his career of public service to the state of Michigan by winning election to the State Supreme Court in 1970. He headed a reform movement within the judiciary to make administration of justice "effective and efficient." He served so capably during his first term that he was easily re-elected in 1978 and was elected Chief Justice by his peers in April 1983. Williams retired from the bench in 1987 and died February 2, 1988. He was survived by his wife, Nancy Quirk Williams, and three children, Gery, Nancy, and Wendy.