Nap Murphy (1921–2005)

Nap Murphy, who sold gasoline and Fords in the Ashley County towns of Crossett and Hamburg, spent thirty-six years in the Arkansas House of Representatives. Murphy chaired the House Agriculture and Economic Development Committee for most of his tenure, but his most newsworthy battles were over such matters as gambling and the racial labeling of blood donors.

Napoleon Bonaparte (Nap) Murphy was born on September 16, 1921, in Crossett, the third youngest of eight children of Charles Edward Murphy and Isadee Maxwell Murphy. He graduated from Crossett High School in 1940 and married Maxine James two years later. They had three children. He first worked for the Ashley, Drew and Northern Railway, which was bought much later by the Georgia-Pacific Corporation, the giant paper-products company that acquired the paper mill in Crossett. He and a brother started a service station and taxi service in Crossett. In 1949, he moved to nearby Hamburg and bought the Esso (later Exxon) service station on Main Street. In 1953, he bought the Ford dealership in the town and renamed it Murphy Ford Company. He ran it until 1999. Over the years, he got into auctioneering and real estate while running the dealership and selling new Fords and used cars. He peddled them to a number of senators and representatives.

The name Napoleon Bonaparte and the sobriquet “Nap” along with his spiffy attire—often but not always a tailored white suit and black bowtie—and carefully coiffed appearance would make the young representative stand out in the chamber of 100 lawmakers, but his personality, if not his lawmaking, added to his distinction. The occasional debate involving Murphy usually provoked some laughter and occasionally head shaking. Although he never tried to perform on the floor, Murphy played the fiddle, guitar, banjo, and mandolin. A state senator who had an apartment down the hall from Murphy in the state-owned office building north of the Arkansas Capitol hosted a birthday party in his apartment for his young daughter and her playmates one evening. Murphy came to the door for a little whiskey—he often mixed it with milk—and, finding the children there, invited them all down to his apartment for a birthday celebration. Hearing a commotion, the senator went down the hall and found Representative Murphy standing on a chair, playing his fiddle, singing, and tapping a foot while the children danced and clapped. The senator later bought a car from Murphy.

At a session of the Arkansas General Assembly early in 1959 highlighted by legislative efforts to preserve segregation, Murphy introduced a bill requiring blood banks to label blood donations with the race of the donors. Arkansas and other Southern states had a long history of trying to preserve so-called white purity. In 1911, the legislature had enacted a law prohibiting racially mixed cohabitation and marriage. Several states in the 1950s adopted blood-labeling laws, although science had firmly established that the mixture of bloods of different races had absolutely no effect on the health of the recipient. In 1959, he introduced and got enacted a bill to require blood banks to label the race of donors so that white people might not get “infected” with blood carrying sickle-cell anemia, which was associated with Black people.

Murphy’s bill passed both houses easily, and Governor Orval E. Faubus, who was engaged in a three-year fight with the federal courts over integrating school classrooms, signed it into law. Regardless of what medical people say, Faubus said, sickle-cell disease is hereditary and could be transmitted from one person to another by intermarriage and possibly by the birth of children. White people needed protection from even the possibility that the hereditary disease could be transmitted to them, he said.

Ten years later, however, at the beginning of the 1969 legislative session, Murphy introduced a bill repealing the law. He admitted it had never been needed. Governor Winthrop Rockefeller signed his repeal into law.

A staunch Baptist, Murphy opposed gambling. At the beginning of the 1963 regular legislative session, he introduced a bill creating a special division of the Arkansas State Police to investigate violations of the laws against gambling anywhere in the state and to assist prosecutors in bringing felony charges. He said he was alarmed by recent publicity over illegal gambling at Hot Springs (Garland County) and by an explosion that rocked the Vapors, a plush Hot Springs nightclub and casino. Senator Q. Byrum Hurst of Hot Springs, who sought for years to protect all forms of wagering in the city, denounced the bill and ridiculed Murphy, saying the state perhaps should lend some help to police agencies in Murphy’s county since it seemed they could not control gambling there. He said Murphy’s bill would never pass, and it did not.

Several years later, a sentence was inserted deep inside the State Police’s biennial appropriation bill prohibiting the agency from enforcing gambling laws. It was directed at rising pressure on the governor to raid casinos at Hot Springs that, for many years, had operated half-furtively. Senator Charles L. George of Cabot (Lonoke County) spotted the sentence as the Senate was about to pass the bill and had the sentence deleted. In 1967, Governor Rockefeller’s State Police director led a raid on the casinos, confiscated and destroyed slot machines, and ended open wagering except at racetracks.

Murphy rarely had opponents in the biennial elections for the thirty-six years he served. He did not run for reelection in 1994, believing that a constitutional amendment imposing term limits on elected officials that was ratified by voters in 1992 had ended his service. The amendment was subsequently changed by another amendment, however.

Murphy died on August 23, 2005, and is buried in Hamburg Cemetery.

For additional information:
“Author of Law on Labeling Blood Seeks Repeal.” Arkansas Gazette, January 15, 1969, p. 4A.

“Governor Signs Blood Labeling, Road Bond Bills.” Arkansas Gazette, April 3, 1959, pp. 1, 2.

Obituary of Napoleon Bonaparte Murphy. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 25, 2005, p. 7B.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas


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