Pauli Murray (1910-1985), a lifelong civil rights advocate, served as a lawyer, college professor, deputy attorney general, and ordained minister. Often the first African American woman to fill the positions she occupied, Murray worked tirelessly to destroy the legal and political obstacles created by racism and racial discrimination and fought at the same time against the Jane Crow stereotypes that limited the lives of women—especially African American women—in equally vicious ways.
Born November 20, 1910, in Baltimore, Maryland, Anna Pauline Murray was, as she noted in her autobiography Song in a Weary Throat, the result of "several generations of a generous intermixture of African, European, and Native American stocks." The granddaughter of a slave and the great-grandaughter of a slave owner, she was the fourth of six children born to Agnes (Fitzgerald) and William Murray, a nurse and school teacher. The family was a warm and loving one, but Murray grew up deeply conscious of the Jim Crow segregation laws that circumscribed their lives and affected every aspect of their existence. "[R]ace," she recalled, "was the atmosphere one breathed from day to day, the pervasive irritant, the chronic allergy, the vague apprehension which made one uncomfortable and jumpy. We knew the race problem was like a deadly snake coiled and ready to strike, and that one avoided its dangers only by never-ending watchfulness."
Orphaned at a Young Age
Murray's childhood happiness ended abruptly when her mother died of a cerebral hemorrhage in the summer of 1914. Her father, already weakened both mentally and physically from a nearly fatal bout of typhoid fever years before, found himself unable to care for all his children. The family was split, and Murray was sent to North Carolina, where she was raised by her mother's sisters, Pauline and Sarah Fitzgerald, and her grandparents, Robert and Cornelia (Smith) Fitzgerald. Her father's health and sanity continued to deteriorate; three years later he was sent to Crownsville State Hospital, an asylum, where he was confined until his death in 1923.
A bright and conscientious student, Murray graduated from Hillsdale High School at the top of her class in 1926. She was determined to attend college and refused to consider any of the segregated institutions in the South. She chose Hunter College, a public women's school in New York City—she first needed to remedy the second-class schooling she'd received in the South. She moved in with a cousin's family in Queens and attended Richmond Hill High School to prepare for the Regent's Exam that would allow her to enter Hunter. Studying literally around the clock, she graduated with honors a year later. The next hurdle, saving enough money to fund her studies, required Murray to work still another year, but she entered Hunter College in September of 1928.
At Hunter, her studies, particularly in anthropology, first convinced her that race and racial designations were arbitrary classifications that served only to divide people, fueling, as she wrote in her autobiography, "the poisonous notions of superior and inferior races." Her conviction that race was an artificial distinction without a biological basis would become the cornerstone of her legal and civil rights work.
Began Civil Rights Work
Murray graduated from Hunter with honors in 1933, one of four African American students out of 247. She eventually found a job with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and taught remedial reading for a year before transferring to the WPA Workers Education Project, an effort to teach workers everything from basic English and simple math to current events and collective bargaining. The job put her in contact with a much broader group of people than she had encountered before, and the experience was enlightening. She noted in her autobiography: "I had never thought of white people as victims of oppression, but now I heard echoes of the black experience when I listened to white workers tell their personal stories of being evicted, starved out, beaten, and jailed… . Seeing the relationship between my personal cause and the universal cause of freedom released me from a sense of isolation, helped me to rid myself of vestiges of shame over my racial history, and gave me an unequivocal understanding that equality of treatment was my birthright and not something to be earned."
Murray's determination to fight segregation and secure her rights as an American grew, and in 1938 she applied for admission to the University of North Carolina (UNC). As a state university, however, UNC did not admit African American students. Despite the university president's liberal and sympathetic leanings and a recent Supreme Court decision requiring Missouri to admit a African American student to its state law school, UNC steadfastly rejected Murray's application. She refused to accept defeat, writing letters to newspapers, the head of the university, and to both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. She also asked the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for help, and Thurgood Marshall (a future Supreme Court justice) was assigned to review the situation. Unfortunately, the NAACP decided not to take her case, saying that since she had only recently moved back to her North Carolina she could claim neither state residency nor a right to attend UNC. They wanted an open-and-shut case.
Still searching for a job that would allow her to challenge segregation laws, Murray left the WPA and began to look for other work. While traveling through the South in 1940, however, she and a friend were jailed in Petersburg, Virginia, when they refused to move to a broken seat at the back of the bus to make room for white passengers—15 years before Rosa Parks made history in the Montgomery, Alabama. Her experience with the WPA and UNC had taught Murray well, and she again contacted the NAACP, the Workers Defense League (WDL), and Mrs. Roosevelt, all of whom became involved in the case. Murray and her friend were ultimately convicted by the courts, but the publicity surrounding the case had convinced the local authorities to drop the charges of breaking segregation laws, charging the pair instead with creating a disturbance. "Although we lost the legal battle," Murray wrote later in her autobiography, "the episode convinced me that creative nonviolent resistance could be a powerful weapon in the struggle for human dignity."
Following this incident Murray joined the WDL, which had taken up the death-penalty case of Odell Waller, a African American sharecropper convicted of killing his white employer. The prosecutor charged Waller with premeditatated murder; Waller claimed self defense. Although the WDL's efforts were ultimately unsuccessful (Waller was executed in 1942), the work convinced Murray to pursue a career as a civil rights lawyer. She began her legal studies at Howard University, a black university in Washington, D.C, certain that this environment, at least, would be free from prejudice.
Discovered "Jane Crow" Discrimination
Murray discovered to her dismay that while racial bias was not a factor, sexual discrimination against women was rampant. "In my preoccupation with the brutalities of racism, I had failed until now to recognize the subtler, more ambiguous expressions of sexism," she recalled bitterly in her autobiography. "[I]n the intimate environment of a Negro law school dominated by men, … the factor of gender was fully exposed… . I soon learned that women were often the objects of ridicule disguised as a joke." This only steeled her resolve to excel.
Murray did pioneering legal work while at Howard, formulating an attack on the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision mandating "separate but equal" treatment and public facilities for African Americans and whites. Murray's final paper for 1944 proposed a legal challenge to segregation based on the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law to all Americans. Racial distinctions, she argued, were arbitrary classifications that could not be used to determine legal rights. In addition, segregation was a devastating psychological blow and one that clearly violated the civil rights of African American citizens. In 1951 Murray expanded this thesis into a book, States' Laws on Race and Color. It became the foundation of the NAACP's groundbreaking work in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which effectively ended segregation in public schools.
Denied Admission to Harvard
Graduating at the head of her class in 1944, Murray was the recipient of a Rosenfeld Fellowship, an honor that was usually a ticket to graduate work at Harvard. At that time, however, Harvard did not admit women—and would not for nearly 20 more years. Murray, unwilling to take "no" for an answer, lodged every possible appeal and even prevailed on her earlier acquaintance with the Roosevelts— FDR sent a letter to Harvard on her behalf—but was ultimately unable to prevail, although her appeals were enough to split the board evenly on the question of whether or not to admit her.
She went instead to the Boalt Hall of Law at the University of California in Berkeley, where she earned a master of laws degree in 1945. She worked as a Los Angeles deputy district attorney before heading back to New York a year later. In 1949, while living in Brooklyn, she made her one and only bid for public office, running for a City Council seat on the Liberal Party ticket. Although unsuccessful, she came in second, prompting her to remark in her autobiography, "Although I had no desire to run for political office again, I thought of that campaign as a harbinger of things to come when, nineteen years later, Shirley Chisholm ran … in the same general area of Brooklyn and was elected as the first Negro woman in Congress."
Murray chronicled her family's history in 1956 with Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family. In the introduction to the 1978 edition, she recalled that writing the book "became for me the resolution of a search for identity and the exorcism of ghosts of the past… . I began to see myself in a new light—the product of a slowly evolving process of biological and cultural integration, a process containing the character of many cultures and many peoples, a New World experiment, fragile yet tenacious a possible hint of a stronger and freer America of the future, no longer stunted in its growth by an insidious ethnocentrism."
She went to Ghana in 1960, driven partly by a desire to learn about her African heritage. She taught constitutional law at the Ghana Law School but soon began to be perceived as a threat to President Kwame Nkrumah's drive for totalitarian power. With the political situation becoming ever more unsettled, she left the country barely more than a year later to pursue further legal studies; she earned a doctor of juridical science degree from Yale University Law School in 1965.
Worked for Women's Rights
Murray was appointed to the President's Commission on the Status of Women Committee (PCSW) in 1961, where, just as she had 1951, she surveyed state laws to compile a catalog of ways in women were kept from true legal equality. She argued that these could be overturned with a Supreme Court ruling based on the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to invalidate these discriminatory laws. Some of the women on the commission wanted to push for the adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution (first written and proposed in 1923), but Murray firmly believed, as with race, that the Constitution— particularly the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments already guaranteed women the rights and protections they needed. Her refusal to endorse the ERA eventually led her to part company with many feminists.
In 1964 Murray used her considerable influence to campaign for the inclusion of sex discrimination in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Her efforts (combined with those of others) were successful: the bill was passed by both houses of Congress and became law that year. Murray was keenly aware, however, that the statute would require active enforcement if the status of women, especially African American women, was to improve. The following year she published "Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII" in the George Washington Law Review, in which she cited "ways in which the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments and the sex provisions of Title VII would be interpreted to accord women equality of rights… . Published … at a time when few authoritative legal materials on discrimination against women existed, [the] article broke new ground and was widely cited."
Helped Found NOW
A year later she joined the executive board of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), beginning a seven-year collaboration with fellow ACLU board member Dorothy Kenyon, who also sought legal challenges with which to attack sex discrimination. In 1966 Murray became one of the 30 founding members of the National Organization for Women (NOW), an alliance she hoped would ensure government enforcement of Title VII. The NOW feminists were determined to push for ratification of the ERA, but Murray remained convinced that the Constitution already guaranteed women's rights. She eventually resigned from NOW's national leadership when the organization voted to push for ratification of the ERA in 1967.
In 1968 she went to Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachussetts, as a visiting professor in the school's American Civilization program. She expanded the program into a full-fledged American Studies department two years later and in 1971 was honored with the Louis Stulberg Chair in Law and Politics and a full, tenured professorship in American Studies.
Ordained an Episcopal Priest
Yet one more first remained for Pauli Murray. When she was 62, just a few years away from what many would consider retirement age, she entered the master of divinity degree program at General Theological Seminary in New York City. She became the first American black woman to become an Episcopal priest on January 8, 1977, in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. She celebrated her first Eucharist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the little church where her grandmother, a slave, had been baptized in 1854. "All the strands of my life had come together," Murray recalled in her autobiography. "Descendent of slave and of slave owner … [n]ow I was empowered to minister the sacrament of One in whom there is no north or south, no black or white, no male or female—only the spirit of love and reconciliation drawing us all toward the goal of human wholeness."
Pauli Murray died in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on July 1, 1985. In 1990 Orange County, North Carolina, established the Pauli Murray Human Relations Award to commemorate Murray's life and work. The annual award is given to a youth, adult, and business that, according to the county's website, "have served the community with distinction in the pursuit of equality, justice, and human rights for all citizens.
Murray, Pauli, Dark Testament and Other Poems, Silvermine, 1970.
—, Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family, Harper &Row, 1978.
—, Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage, Harper &Row, 1987.
—, States' Laws on Race and Color, University of Georgia Press, 1997.
George Washington Law Review, December 1965.
Journal of Women's History, Summer 2002.
Nation, May 23, 1987.
Sarasota Herald Tribune, February 17, 1997.
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