Madeline W. Murphy 1922-2007
Activist dedicated to racial justice, the poor
Columnist, TV personality inspired family, city to action
By Sumathi Reddy
July 10, 2007
Madeline Wheeler Murphy, a passionate community activist, civil rights champion and popular panelist on the WJZ-TV show Square Off, died of a heart attack Sunday at her Roland Park Place residence. She was 84.
Mrs. Murphy was active in city politics and ran for City Council three times, twice in the 1960s and again in 1983, the same year that her son, William H. Murphy Jr., made an unsuccessful bid to unseat then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer in the Democratic primary.
Mrs. Murphy often appeared as a guest on local television and radio shows, most notably Square Off, where she aired her progressive views and seemed to relish clashing with conservative panelists. She was also a columnist for the Afro American newspaper for more than two decades and later published her columns in a book.
Mrs. Murphy's husband, District Judge William H. Murphy Sr., died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 2003. The couple were longtime residents of Cherry Hill until they moved to Roland Park Place in recent years.
Judge Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the Court of Appeals, described Mrs. Murphy as "outspoken" and "brilliant."
"She was an activist type who was more prone to action than simply words," said Mr. Bell, who served on the bench with the elder Mr. Murphy. "She wanted to get everybody inspired and to act in the best interests of this city. And she was not timid. She was a woman who did not fear to get into the male-dominated sectors."
Former Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III said he got to know Mrs. Murphy when he was a city councilman and she was pushing to pass civil rights legislation.
"I had a nickname for her," he said. "I used to call her Geronimo - she was always on the warpath. But she was always factual, straightforward, honest in her presentations.
"She was a great lady, a great lady - really something special," he said.
Born in Boston and raised in Wilmington, Del., Mrs. Murphy graduated from Howard High School, where she was valedictorian.
She had attended Temple University in Philadelphia for two years when she met her husband at a dance at a nearby university.
She married at the age of 19 in 1942. The couple lived in Delaware and Chicago briefly, before moving to the Baltimore area in 1945. They lived in Turners Station for about a year before moving to Cherry Hill, where they eventually bought a house and raised five children, becoming longtime residents and well-known activists.
When the Cherry Hill community fought off an incinerator and liquor stores in the neighborhood, Mrs. Murphy was on the front lines.
When she was president of a lawyers' wives association, she led a group to the Circuit Courthouse to conduct an inspection to prove it was segregated.
And when there were allegations that voting irregularities prevented thousands of black city voters from casting ballots, she was part on a group urging the state's attorney to investigate.
"She was involved in every political campaign from 1948 on, presidential and local," said William Murphy Jr., her son and a prominent lawyer and former Circuit Court judge. "Her commitment to racial justice and opportunity for all citizens drove her. She was totally dedicated to uplifting the poor."
Mrs. Murphy was also an intellectual, a mother who reared five successful children who trace the origins of their success to her passion and prowess, family members say.
"We get the brains from mom's side of the family," said son Arthur W. Murphy, a well-known local political consultant. "She had five kids that were committed to changing the world."
Mrs. Murphy was perhaps best known in Baltimore for her appearances on Square Off, in which she talked about the hot political issues of the day for nearly two decades.
"She was an extremely bright, extremely reflective and extremely warm person, although you'd never know it by her hard veneer," said Richard Sher of Channel 13, who was the host of show, which is no longer on the air.
"She was a fighter," he added. "She would not take anything from some of the more conservative panelists. ... She stood up for what she believed in. Even the panelists who hated her loved her."
Mrs. Murphy worked as director of community services for Cherry Hill Community Presbyterian Church from 1959 to 1969 and served on the first poverty board of the Community Action Commission. She also taught at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.
She was a member of myriad community organizations and received numerous awards, including induction into the Baltimore City Women's Hall of Fame.
"She was involved in community affairs from soup to nuts," said William Murphy Jr.
"Her greatest accomplishment was being one of the most vocal persons in the struggle that I have ever known," said the Rev. Marion C. Bascom, retired pastor of Douglas Memorial Community Church and a civil rights crusader. "Everyone during her time knew who Madeline Murphy was."
Mrs. Murphy was even an associate or honorary member of the Goon Squad, a civil rights group in Baltimore in the 1950s and 1960s. "Though Madeline was a woman, she was the woman in the group who shared her thoughts, her energies and her know-how," Mr. Bascom said.
In one of her most recent published works, a 1997 article in The Sun's Perspective section, Mrs. Murphy wrote of tracing her family tree to Philip Henry Livingston, the grandson of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who had a child with his Jamaican slave.
In the article, she reflected on a reunion with Livingston family members that she attended, comparing her life to that of the slave she was descended from. "Our lives are parallel lines that will never meet," she wrote. "We are divided by racial stereotypes and our society's inability to deal with slavery's impact."
Laura W. Murphy said her mother was a "feminine feminist," a woman who was always impeccably dressed, was an outstanding cook, and designed and knitted her own sweaters.
Mrs. Murphy pursued her flair for art later in life, earning a certificate in fine arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1980. At Roland Park Place, Mrs. Murphy painted, and some of her work was on exhibition and even sold, said her daughter, the former director of Washington national office of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"She had a very powerful spirit, the spirit of a Renaissance woman," she said.
A service will be held at 3 p.m. July 17 at the Tremont Grand, the former Masonic Temple, 225 N. Charles St.
Mrs. Murphy is also survived by another son, Houston W. Murphy of Alexandria, Va., a computer engineer; another daughter, Madeline Murphy Rabb, a curator and former executive director of the Chicago Office of Fine Arts, Department of Cultural Affairs; and a sister, Mary Ann Wheeler Franklin of Baltimore.
Sun reporter Laura Vozzella contributed to this article.
Copyright © 2007, The Baltimore Sun