Murphy, Laura W. 1955–
Laura W. Murphy 1955–
As director of the Washington, D.C., office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Laura W. Murphy is responsible for implementing the goals of that organization in the American legislative arena. She works to mobilize the ACLU’s national membership on civil liberties matters, supervises a 35-person staff, and generally serves as the organization’s public face, appearing on television and radio discussion programs and writing opinion pieces for numerous publications. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Murphy became a tireless defender of established civil liberties laws and practices, as they came under pressure from a presidential administration that was intent on expanding the powers of law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Murphy was born on October 3, 1955, in Baltimore, Maryland. Her family background made her a natural for political activism. Her great-grandfather John Henry Murphy was an ex-slave who founded the Afro-American newspaper, on whose board of directors Murphy still sits. Her uncle George Murphy was a union organizer and an associate of the famed actor and activist Paul Robeson. Both of Murphy’s parents ran for political office several times, and in 1970 her father, William H. Murphy, Sr., became the second African American in Baltimore to gain election to a judgeship, winning over a white incumbent. “I’ve been handing out literature since the age of 7,” Murphy told Ebony. “My brother and I would take a block. He would be on one side of the street, and I would be on the other. I learned how to get over my shyness and just speak to adults in a way that would engage them at a very early age.”
Dissatisfied with the educational conditions prevailing at local schools in Murphy’s segregated South Baltimore neighborhood of Cherry Hill, her mother enrolled her in Pimlico Junior High School, on the city’s northwest side, when she was 12 years old. At the time, Murphy was one of only a few African-American students in a heavily Jewish student body. The negative attitudes of her middle-class schoolmates toward the neighborhood where she grew up made a strong impression on Murphy. “I really got an education about class and how cruel Americans can be to their own countrymen, black and white,” she told the Baltimore Sun. However, the change in environment didn’t slow Murphy down scholastically. She graduated from Northwestern High School in 1972 at age 16 and entered Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Elite Wellesley presented Murphy with yet another set of new circumstances, but she continued to flourish, majoring in history and winning a summer internship in a Capitol Hill legislative office in Washington, D.C.
During that summer Murphy found her calling, when she discovered that she enjoyed the rough-and-tumble world of politics. “I loved the action,” she told Ebony. “I loved the law-making process. I got to work on things that really affected people’s lives.” Murphy served as president of the Black Student Union at Wellesley and headed into the political world after her graduation in
Born on October 3, 1955, in Baltimore, MD; daughter of judge William H, and Madeline Murphy; divorced; children: Bertram M. Lee, Jr. Education: Wellesley College, BA, 1976.
Career: Office of Rep. Parren J Mitchell, legislative assistant, 1976–77; office of Rep, Shirley Chisholm, legislative assistant 1977–79; ACLU of Southern California, legislative representative, 1979–82; ACLU Foundation of Southern California, director of development, 1983–84; Mixner Scott Inc., project manager, 1984–87; office of California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, chief of staff, 1986–87; Jesse Jackson presidential campaign, national finance director, 1987–88; private fundraising consultant; 1988–90; Washington, DC, mayor’s office, tourism consultant, 1990–92; Government Office of Tourism, Washington, DC, director, 1992–93; ACLU, Washington, DC office, director, 1993–.
Selected memberships: Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, 1993–; DC Committee to Promote Washington, acting chair, 1993–95; Public Defenders Service of Washington, board member, 1993–95,
Selected awards: ACLU, Washington Office, Human Rights Award, 1982; NAACP Black Women of Achievement Award, 1987; Washington, DC, mayor’s office, Distinguished Public Service Award, 1994; Congressional Black Caucus, William L, Dawson Award, 1997.
1976. She moved to California and worked for several legislators, including the pioneering African-American U.S. Representative Shirley Chisholm, in the late 1970s. In 1979 she was hired by the California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as a legislative aide, and she soon landed in the thick of the ultimately successful fight over the 1982 extension of the federal Voting Rights Act.
Murphy’s next position was concerned with the financial underpinnings of activism. She took a position as development director for the ACLU Foundation of Southern California in 1983. In the late 1980s she moved on to other finance-oriented posts, after a stint in private industry and a two-year term as chief of staff to California Assembly Speaker and future San Francisco mayor Willie Brown. “So I learned the legislative process inside and out,” she told Ebony. Murphy then moved into the national spotlight, as finance director for the presidential campaign of the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1988, and subsequently worked as an independent fundraising consultant.
Divorced and with one son, Murphy moved to Washington and worked as a tourism consultant for the District of Columbia city government, becoming director of the city’s tourism office in 1992. The following year she was named director of the ACLU’s Washington office, merging the organizational and activist sides of her career. By 1998 her legislative prowess had been recognized by the congressional newsletter Roll Call, which named her one of the 50 most influential people in congressional politics. Murphy worked mostly behind the scenes, although after the 2000 elections she took a more visible role in opposing President George W. Bush’s nomination of John Ashcroft as U.S. Attorney General. “It’s not like throwing a bone to the religious right, it’s like throwing a carcass,” Murphy was quoted as saying on the CNN website.
It was the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., and their aftermath that presented Murphy with her greatest challenge, as the nation struggled to reconcile the constitutional guarantees of civil liberties with a new tight security environment. About three months after the attacks, Murphy responded to Attorney General Ashcroft’s contention that the civil liberties community was aiding America’s enemies. In a CounterPunch essay, she wrote that “free and robust debate is one of the main engines of social and political justice.” Murphy became a familiar face on the talk show circuit, appearing on such programs as the PBS News Hour with Jim Lehrer, NBC Nightly News, and CNN’s Crossfire. She also worked to broaden the ACLU’s traditional civil liberties concerns, as the organization began to address such issues as racial profiling and immigrants’ rights.
By 2003 Murphy was part of a reinvigorated civil liberties movement. The ACLU now numbered about 400,000 members, a new record, drawing a variety of new members from various ethnic groups and different parts of the political spectrum. Charismatic and energetic, Murphy could claim a share of the credit. She commanded respect from legislators of both major political parties, and her position as a bulwark against further erosion in civil liberties seemed a formidable one. “Rights are only as good as their reach to those in the minority,” she told Ebony. “People in the majority don’t need much protection. … It’s those dissenting voices, those going against popular opinion, who need the protection of the Bill of Rights.”
Ebony, September 2003, p. 148.
Sun (Baltimore, MD), October 6, 2001, p. A10.
“Ashcroft’s Jihad,” CounterPunch, www.counterpunch.org/murphyl.html (December 29, 2003).
“Laura Murphy—Director of the DC Office of the ACLU,” American Civil Liberties Union, http://archive.aclu.org/about/murphy.html (December 29, 2003).
“Liberals, Conservatives Clash on Bush’s Nomination for Attorney General,” CNN, www.cnn.com/2001/LAW/12/22/ashcroft.profiling.pol/ (December 29, 2003).
—James M. Manheim
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