November 20, 1910 – Birth of Pauli Murray, Activist for Civil Rights and Women’s Rights, Inter Alia

Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray as an American civil rights activist who became a lawyer, a women’s rights activist, Episcopal priest (the first African-American woman to be ordained), and author.

Murray was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on November 20, 1910, this day in history. Both sides of her family were of mixed racial origins, with ancestors including Black slaves, white slave owners, Native Americans, Irish, and free Black people. Murray’s parents died when she was a child, and she was raised mostly by her maternal grandparents in Durham, North Carolina. At the age of 16, she moved to New York City to attend Hunter College, and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 1933.

Yale University historian Elizabeth Gilmore, in her book on unsung activists, Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights 1919–1950, explains that in 1938, Murray applied to graduate school at the University of North Carolina and was denied entry because of her race, even though her white great-great-grandfather had been a trustee of the university. Gilmore writes, “From that moment on, Pauli Murray was a one-woman civil rights movement.” 

Pauli Murray, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, From the collection of: National Trust for Historic Preservation

In 1941, Murray enrolled in Howard University law school. Murray was the only woman in her law school class, and she became aware of sexism at the school, which she labeled “Jane Crow” — alluding to Jim Crow, the system of racial discriminatory state laws oppressing African Americans. Murray graduated first in her class, but she was denied the chance to do post-graduate work at Harvard University because of her gender. She earned a master’s degree in law at University of California, Berkeley in 1945, and in 1965 she became the first African American to receive a Doctor of Juridical Science degree from Yale Law School.

In 1942 Murray joined with George Houser, James Farmer and Bayard Rustin, to form the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). In 1943 Murray published two important essays on civil rights, Negroes Are Fed Up in “Common Sense” and an article about the Harlem race riot in the socialist newspaper, “New York Call.” Her most famous poem on race relations, “Dark Testament,” was also written in that year.

Notably, it was Murray’s idea that lead to the successful attack on Plessy v. Ferguson that resulted in Brown v. Board of Education. While at Howard, law students were discussing how best to bring an end to Jim Crow, according to a New Yorker article, “The Many Lives of Pauli Murray,” aptly subtitled: “She was an architect of the civil-rights struggle—and the women’s movement. Why haven’t you heard of her?” The author of that article, Kathryn Schultz, reports:

In the half century since Plessy v. Ferguson, lawyers had been chipping away at segregation by questioning the ‘equal’ part of the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine—arguing that, say, a specific black school was not truly equivalent to its white counterpart. Fed up with the limited and incremental results, one student in the class proposed a radical alternative: why not challenge the ‘separate’ part instead?”

Of course, that student was Pauli Murray. In her final law-school paper, Murray formalized that idea, arguing that segregation violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. Some years later, when her professor, Spottswood Robinson, joined with Thurgood Marshall and others to try to end Jim Crow, he remembered Murray’s paper, retrieved it from his files, and presented it to his colleagues — the team that, in 1954, successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education.

As a lawyer, Murray argued for civil rights and women’s rights. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Chief Counsel Thurgood Marshall called Murray’s 1950 book, States’ Laws on Race and Color, the “bible” of the civil rights movement. The book was an exhaustive compilation of state laws and local ordinances in effect in 1950 that mandated racial segregation and of pre-Brown-era civil rights legislation.

Murray served on the 1961–1963 Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, having been appointed by John F. Kennedy. In 1966, she was a co-founder of the National Organization for Women. Ruth Bader Ginsburg named Murray as a coauthor of a brief on the 1971 case Reed v. Reed, in recognition of her pioneering work on gender discrimination. This case articulated the “failure of the courts to recognize sex discrimination for what it is and its common features with other types of arbitrary discrimination.” Murray held faculty or administrative positions at the Ghana School of Law, Benedict College, and Brandeis University.

In addition to her legal and advocacy work, Murray published two well-reviewed autobiographies and a volume of poetry. Her volume of poetry, “Dark Testament,” was republished in 2018.

Kathryn Schultz writes that Murray’s lifelong fate was to be both ahead of her time and behind the scenes:

Two decades before the civil-rights movement of the nineteen-sixties, Murray was arrested for refusing to move to the back of a bus in Richmond, Virginia; organized sit-ins that successfully desegregated restaurants in Washington, D.C.; and, anticipating the Freedom Summer, urged her Howard classmates to head south to fight for civil rights and wondered how to ‘attract young white graduates of the great universities to come down and join with us.’ And, four decades before another legal scholar, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, coined the term ‘intersectionality,’ Murray insisted on the indivisibility of her identity and experience as an African-American, a worker, and a woman.”

Despite all this, Schultz laments, Murray’s name is not well known today, especially among white Americans.

There are a number of links to more information about Pauli Murray on a National Organization for Women website, here.

Carolina Digital Library and Archives – Carolina Digital Library and Archives. “Murray, Pauli, 1910-1985.” July 2007. Online image. UNC University Library.

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