activists black history Civil Rights feminist

Pauli Murray

Pauli Murray was an American civil rights activist, women’s rights activist, lawyer and author. She was the first woman to be awarded a J.D.S degree from Yale and the first black woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. She also co-founded NOW, the National Organization for Women.

Murray was born in 1910 in Baltimore, Maryland. At a young age she was sent to live with her aunt, Pauline Fitzgerald when her parents died. Murray attended Hillside High School, graduating in 1926 before continuing her education at Hunter College in New York. She financed her studies by working various jobs, but was forced to abandon her studies after the Wall Street Crash made it hard for her to find work. Murray graduated in 1933 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, and she began a job selling subscriptions to Opportunity, the magazine of the National Urban League, a civil rights organisation based in New York City.

After poor health led to Murray resigning for her job, she was told to move to a healthier environment and took a position at Camp Tera, a conversation camp established by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in an attempt to provide employment to young adults while improving infrastructure. Murray clashed with the camp’s director for keeping communist literature, refusing to stand to attention for an inspection by the First Lady and having a relationship with Peg Holmes, a white counselor. Murray and Holmes left the camp together in February 1935 and travelled the country. During the 1930’s, the also worked for the Young Women’s Christian Association, the Works Projects Administration (WPA) and as a teacher in the New York City Remedial Reading Project. She also produced articles and poems which were published in various magazines, along with a novel Angel of the Desert that was serialised in the Carolina Times.

In 1938, Murray began a campaign to enter the all-white University of North Carolina. She was initially supported by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and her case became known nationally. She wrote to many officials, from the university president to President Roosevelt and released their responses to the media. The NAACP later refused to assist her, possibly because of concerns about her sexuality. Murray was open about her relationships with women and often wore trousers instead of skirts. It wasn’t until 1951 that Floyd McKissick became the first African American was accepted by the University. In 1940, Murray was travelling with Adelene McBean, her roommate and girlfriend to Durham to visit her aunts on a bus. The women were discussing Gandhian civil disobedience and, inspired to act they moved from the black section of the bus at the back to the white section. The police were called but they refused to move and they were arrested and jailed. The NAACP initially defended them but once they were sentenced with disorderly conduct instead of violating segregation laws they withdrew their support. The Workers Defense League (WDL) stepped in to help them and paid the fine, months later Murray was hired to work for the WDL’s Administrative Committee. She worked on the case of Odell Walker, a black Virginia sharecropper sentenced to death for killing his white landlord during an argument. Despite Murray touring the country raising funds for his appeal and writing to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to intervene Waller was executed in July that year. Through their correspondence, Murray and Roosevelt became friends.

In 1941, Murray’s experiences in both the Waller case and her earlier bus incident led to her enrolling at Howard University law school with the intention to build a career in civil rights law. Murray was the only woman in her class, and was discriminated against due to her gender. She labelled the sexism she dealt with ‘Jane Crow’, after the Jim Crow racial discriminatory state laws which oppressed African Americans. A year later, Murray joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and began to participate in sit-ins protesting discriminatory seating policies at several Washington D.C. restaurants. While at Howard, Murray was elected Chief Justice of the Howard Court of Peers, the highest student position at Howard, and in 1944 she graduated first in her class. If she had of been male, she would have been awarded a Julius Rosenwald Fellowships for graduate work at Harvard, but as they did not accept women she was rejected. President Roosevelt wrote a letter of support, but Harvard stood firm on their decision. Undeterred, Murray did post-graduate work at Boalt Hall School of Law at University of California, Berkeley.

In 1945, Murray passed the bar and a year later, became California’s first black deputy attorney general. That same year, she was named “Woman of the Year” by National Council of Negro Women, a year later Mademoiselle awarded her the same honour. In 1950, Murray published States’ Laws on Race and Color, an examination and critique of state segregation laws throughout the nation. Thurgood Marshall, who was the NAACP Chief Counsel at the time called the book the “bible” of the civil rights movement. It was influential in the NAACP’s arguments in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), which led to the US Supreme Court ruling that segregated public schools were unconstitutional. In 1960, Murray served on the faulty of the Ghana School of Law for a year, before returning to the U.S. to begin her studies at Yale Law School. In 1961, she was appointed to the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women by President John F. Kennedy and in 1965, she became the first African American to receive a J.S.D. (Juris Scientium Doctor, Doctor of the Science of Law) from Yale.

Murray was passionate about protesting discrimination on the basis of race and sex. In 1963 she began to criticise the sexism of the civil rights movement, pointing out the fact that in the March on Washington that year no women were invited to make major speeches or be part of its delegation to the white house. In 1964 she gave a speech entitled “Jim Crow and Jane Crow” in Washington, D.C. on African-American women’s long struggle for racial, and gender equality. A year later, she published “Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII”, in the George Washington Law Review, drawing comparisons between discriminatory laws against women and Jim Crow laws. In 1966, Murray co-founded the National Organisation for Women (NOW), which addressed issues of gender equality and women’s rights.

Murray continued to work as both a social activist, and an educator. She taught at numerous colleges and universities and served as president of Benedict College in the 1960s. In the 1970’s, she challenged sexual discrimination in the Episcopal Church when she entered the priesthood, becoming the first black woman to be ordained as part of the first group of women ordained. She then served in churches in Washington D.C., Baltimore and Pittsburg until she retired in 1984. In 1971, in lawyer and future Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s brief for Reed v. Reed — a Supreme Court case that for the first time extended the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause to women. Murray and Dorothy Kenyon were named as coauthors in recognition of their work in fighting for gender equality. Together they had successfully argued White v. Crook, a case in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that women have an equal right to serve on juries.

Murray was a trailblazer in all that she did, she was a black, feminist, lesbian who did not conform to gender norms working for a civil rights cause that demanded respectable representatives of man and womanhood. Because of her deviation from the heterosexual, married and Christian ideal her contribution to civil rights was sidelined in favour of those who met the specified criteria – just as Claudette Colvin was swiftly replaced with the far more respectable Rosa Parks in the fight against segregated buses. Murray received numerous awards for her contributions for society, and in 2012 she was welcomed into Episcopal sainthood, more than 25 years after her death.

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