Movements of social change are littered with unsung heroes, the forgotten activists who were essential in shaping the world as we know it today. One such person was Pauli Murray, a feminist civil rights activist who played an instrumental role in the desegregation of public schools and in second wave feminism, preaching the indivisibility of racial and gender identities decades before the term “intersectionality” was coined.
Growing up in the south in the 1910s and 1920s, Murray was aware from a very young age of how she was treated differently because of the colour of her skin. Murray lived through many hardships in her early childhood, including the death of her mother at age three, being taken from her home in Baltimore, Maryland to live with an aunt in Durham, North Carolina, and the hospitalization and subsequent death of her father at age thirteen. Despite these challenges, Murray graduated from the only black high school in Durham at fifteen years old at the top of her class. Murray was interested in Columbia University, and convinced her aunt to take her to look at the school. But Columbia did not accept women and Murray ended up at Hunter College where she was one of three black students in the school. After graduating in 1933, Murray applied to the graduate program in sociology at the University of North Carolina but was told, “members of [her] race [were] not admitted to the University.”
In Richmond, Virginia in 1940 Murray was arrested, charged with disorderly conduct, and fined for refusing to move to the back of a public bus. Six months later, while back in Virginia helping raise money for the Workers Defense League, Murray gave an impassioned speech in defense of a sharecropper named Odell Waller who had been sentenced to death for shooting the white man he farmed for as an act of self-defense. Murray’s work on this case changed her life in two ways. Firstly, she struck up a close friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt who was also supporting Waller. Secondly, two men, Thurgood Marshall and Leon Ransom, heard Murray’s speech and convinced her to apply to Howard Law School where Ransom was a professor. Murray applied and managed to secure a scholarship that enabled her to attend law school.
Murray was the first female student at Howard, the largest historically black university in the United States. One of the biggest topics of discussion at the time was the Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation with the idea of “separate but equal.” While Murray’s peers were focused on the falsity of the “equal” part of these laws, Murray concentrated instead on the legality of being “separate.” In her final paper for law school, Murray expounded on this view, arguing that the “separate” part of “separate but equal” violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States. A few years later, her professor Spottswood Robinson remembered Murray’s paper and used it to win the case Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, VA, one of five cases encompassed in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that desegregated schools.
After Howard, Murray applied to Harvard University for graduate work, but was told, even after Franklin Delano Roosevelt appealed to the school, that her sex was not admitted to Harvard.
In 1948 the women’s division of the Methodist Church approached Murray to help explain to them the segregation laws in America. They were against segregation, and merely wanted to know when they were required to segregate their parishes. Murray ended up writing a 746-page book, “States’ Laws on Race and Color” that detailed the intricacies and absurdity of the laws on American segregation. Thurgood Marshall, who argued in front of the Supreme Court for the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education, called her book “the bible” of this important case and bought a copy for everyone on his team.
In 1956, Murray finally found steady work at a New York law firm, where she was the only African-American and one of three women. A few years later, Murray taught briefly at the Ghana School of Law before returning home to fight for women’s rights. After making a speech in New York proposing a women’s march on Washington, Murray was contacted by Betty Friedan, best known for her book, “The Feminine Mystique” about the plight of housewives. Together, along with a dozen other women, Murray and Friedan founded the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966.
After years of working with NOW, Murray stepped away to help with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She also achieved a tenured professorship at Brandeis University. After all of this, Murray left Brandeis in 1977 to become the first African-American female Episcopal priest.
Murray was always adamant about her unified identity. She reportedly hated “to be fragmented into Negro at one time, woman at another, or worker at another.” She had faced racism in feminist groups and sexism from civil rights activists all her life. She even coined the term “Jane Crow” to name the experience of women of color in America. Although Murray spent her life advocating for these parts of her identity, she stayed private about other sectors of her life. But according to Murray’s diary, which was found after her death, she identified as a man. Publicly Murray always went by she/her pronouns, but she began going by Paul at age 15—her given name being Anna Pauline Murray—and only switched to Pauli when she started at Hunter College. After doing some research on how she was feeling about her gender, Murray herself had the idea of hormone treatment and for decades looked for a doctor that would treat her, but to no avail. Murray was always attracted to females, but identified as a heterosexual man, rather than as a lesbian.
The internal and external struggles Murray faced throughout her life gave her the drive to make her mark on American history, but all this came at a more personal cost. Murray had an anxiety disorder that resulted in frequent hospitalizations. These however did not stop her from being the first African-American to get a Doctorate of Jurisprudence at Yale. Murray co-wrote a law review article used by Ruth Bader Ginsburg to convince the Supreme Court that the equal protection clause applies to women, she organized several successful sit-ins to desegregate restaurants in the south, she was sainted by the Episcopal Church, her childhood home was declared a national historic landmark, and she was selected to serve on President Kennedy’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women.
Murray’s legacy lives on in the Pauli Murray Project at the Duke Human Rights Center, located in Murray’s hometown of Durham, North Carolina. The project seeks to “actively [work] toward fairness and justice across divisions such as race, class, sexual & gender identity and spiritual practice.” This project could play an important role in social justice movements, specifically because it’s coming from one of the most prestigious southern universities. Duke Divinity School has recently come under scrutiny for allegations of discrimination based on race, and sexual and gender identity. Carl Kenny, a prominent African-American minister and journalist who graduated from Duke Divinity in 1993, said on NPR last May, “it's bigger than just racism on the campus; it's how it impacts the black church.” Kenny emphasizes that it was just in recent years that the dialogue around issues of race and homosexuality disappeared from Duke Divinity School, supposedly thanks to more of an evangelical influence on the school. The Pauli Murray Project believes that guided history-telling, including community dialogues, oral history research, panel discussions and reading circles, is the best way to strive for reconciliation and healing in communities of colour and the LGBTQ+ community. This template could change the approach on how to create harmony between different groups, all done in the name of a woman who worked her whole life for a chance to have these dialogues.
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