Tom Murphy, a Georgia Democrat, held the speakership of the House of Representatives of the Georgia General Assembly for twenty-eight years, the longest tenure for a Speaker in any state legislature. Murphy served during the terms of five governors—Jimmy Carter, George Busbee, Joe Frank Harris, Zell Miller, and Roy Barnes.
Thomas Bailey Murphy was born on March 10, 1924, in Bremen (Haralson County), to a family with deep roots in the area. He grew up listening to his grandfather’s stories about several battles in the Atlanta campaign of the Civil War (1861-65). Murphy’s great-grandfather was killed fighting for the Confederacy at the nearby Battle of New Hope Church (1864).Murphy’s father, William Harvey Murphy, was a telegrapher for the Central Georgia Railway, a New Deal Democrat, and a supporter of Governor Ellis Arnall. He was also a Primitive Baptist preacher, and Tom Murphy has been a lifelong Primitive Baptist and bearer of his father’s political philosophy. After graduating from high school in Bremen, Murphy attended North Georgia College (later North Georgia College and State University) in Dahlonega, where he participated in collegiate boxing. He graduated in 1943.
From 1943 to 1946 Murphy served in the navy in the Pacific Theater of World War II (1941-45) as a Seabee. Discharged from the navy in 1946, he entered the Lumpkin School of Law at the University of Georgia on the G.I. bill. That same year he married Agnes Bennett, with whom he had four children: Michael, Martha, Marjorie, and Mary Jane. Graduating with an LL.B. degree in 1949, he returned to Bremen to enter law practice with his older brother, James Murphy.
For several years beginning in the mid-1950s Murphy served as a member of the Bremen Board of Education. In 1960 he ran unopposed for the Georgia House of Representatives. He entered the house in 1961, when Ernest Vandiver was governor. From 1967 to 1970 he served as administrative floor leader for Governor Lester Maddox, and from 1970 to 1973 he was Speaker pro tempore of the House. After the sudden death of Speaker of the House George L. Smith in 1973, Murphy was elected by the Democratic Party caucus to finish Smith’s term. Believing that George Smith had allowed himself to be manipulated by the media, Murphy refused to spend much time with journalists.
Historically, governors had used the Democratic Party caucus to control the legislature and the Speakers. In 1965 Murphy had felt the political wrath of Governor Carl Sanders and as Speaker was determined to be independent of governors. The election of Lester Maddox had weakened the governor’s office, and Murphy used the opportunity to act independently.
After each national census Murphy presided over the reapportionment of the congressional house districts. Critics of the process argued that the map of the reapportioned districts was gerrymandered to favor Democrats. In the reapportionment battles of 1991 and 2001, Murphy engineered the abolition of the congressional seats of Republicans Newt Gingrich (1991) and Bob Barr (2001). Murphy’s action was viewed as typical of his hardball politics. The contorted districts for both congressional and Georgia General Assembly seats confused and angered many people, however, and may have contributed to his defeat in the election of 2002.
During Murphy’s forty-two-year career as a member of the Georgia house, he was known as a man with a quick wit and a sharp tongue. He conducted his politics in a style familiar to the rural South and reminiscent of early decades of the 1900s. He could with the nod of his head make or break legislation. In later years, when his cigar smoking was banned in the capitol buildings, he could be seen chomping on an unlit cigar and wearing a Stetson hat and a pair of Florsheim zip-up boots. This style did not endear him to urban forces in the Atlanta business community.
Murphy’s legislative career ended on November 5, 2002, when he was defeated by Republican challenger Bill Heath, who had almost defeated him in the election of 2000.
In 2004 Murphy suffered a stroke, from which he never fully recovered. The following year a portrait of Murphy was hung in the state capitol, by unanimous vote of the legislature. He died on December 17, 2007.