Murray, Pauli

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MURRAY, Pauli (b. 20 November 1910; d. 1 July 1985), lawyer, activist.

As an activist, feminist, lawyer, and socialist, Pauli Murray was involved in some of the key social justice movements in the United States during the twentieth century. She voted for socialist candidate Norman Thomas in 1932, served in the ranks of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and briefly joined a little-known Marxist-Leninist political faction led by a former Communist Party leader, Jay Lovestone. In the civil rights arena, Murray was an organizer for A. Philip Randolph's World War II–era March on Washington Movement, staged sitin protests while attending Howard University Law School, and was active with the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation when it sponsored the first freedom rides in 1947. Murray also had a powerful voice in the burgeoning feminist movement. She served on the Committee on Civil and Political Rights of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women in 1962 and 1963, coauthored an influential 1965 article in the George Washington Law Review on sex discrimination titled "Jane Crow and the Law," and was a founding member of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966.

The broad spectrum of Murray's interests and activities tell only part of the story of her importance as a historical figure. In all of the spaces in which she operated, Murray sought to express the full complexity of her person as a southern-raised self-supporting African American woman radical who built lasting intimate relationships with women yet struggled with her same-sex desires and gender identity. Murray's efforts to embrace the multiple aspects of her identity, although not always visible or spoken, intertwined with and informed her political engagement.

Murray was born Anna Pauline Murray in Baltimore, Maryland, the fourth of William H. Murray and Agnes Fitzgerald Murray's six children. Both of her parents were of mixed ancestry and members of the black educated elite, but Murray lost both at an early age: Agnes Murray died suddenly in 1914, and William Murray faced continued bouts with mental illness that led him three years later to be involuntarily committed to Crownsville State Hospital in Maryland. As a result, Murray moved south to live with her maternal grandparents and her mother's oldest sister, Pauline Fitzgerald Dame, who formally adopted her.

Raised in Durham, North Carolina, Murray spent her formative years negotiating the racial limitations of Jim Crow segregation. In 1926, as a high school graduate determined to gain an education outside of the constraints of southern segregation, Murray moved to New York City to live with her extended family in Queens. In 1928, Murray entered the then all-female Hunter College. In her second year, Murray moved out on her own. Residing at the 137th Street Young Women's Christian Association and working in a variety of jobs, these years marked a crucial period of transformation in her life.

In 1930 the economic chaos of the Great Depression forced Murray to place her college ambitions on hold. In this period, she continued to build significant political and personal relationships with men and women. After a brief unsuccessful marriage, Murray took to traveling the nation. She hitchhiked with female friends throughout New England and, sharing the driving responsibilities with a friend who owned a car, traveled across the country to Vallejo, California, just outside of San Francisco. Murray later published a fictionalized account of her adventures passing as a young boy and illegally riding the railroad in the Negro Anthology (1934), compiled by Nancy Cunard.

In 1933, Murray graduated from Hunter. After a period with the WPA and a variety of progressive organizations, Murray joined the staff of the Socialist Party–affiliated Workers' Defense League. In 1940 she served as the main organizer of a campaign to prevent the execution of Odell Waller, a black Virginia sharecropper accused of killing his white landlord. In 1941, fueled by the Waller case and a growing interest in civil rights justice, Murray entered Howard Law School. She graduated three years later, the first in her class and the only woman.

Reliant solely on her income to support herself and her elderly aunts, Murray struggled to make a living as a lawyer. Murray often turned to publishing projects, including The State Laws on Race and Color (1951), which she edited, and Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family (1956), which she wrote, to support herself. From 1956 to 1960, Murray practiced law at a New York City legal firm that provided some financial security and marked the beginning of a sixteen-year friendship with coworker Irene Barlow. At the urging of her friend Maida Springer, Murray left the firm in 1960 to teach constitutional law for a year at the newly established Ghana Law School in Accra. In 1965, Murray earned a doctorate of juridical science from Yale University Law School and in 1967 moved to Columbia, South Carolina, to work as an administrator at Benedict College. A year later she accepted a faculty position at Brandeis University to teach American civilization and help develop the Afro-American Studies Program, which placed her in the midst of the black power student movement.

In 1973, following the death of her dear friend Barlow, Murray's life shifted profoundly. She resigned her full professorship at Brandeis University and entered an Episcopal seminary. In 1977 she became the first African American in the United States to be ordained as an Episcopalian priest. Murray died in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


"Dialogue. Pauli Murray's Notable Connections." Journal of Women's History 14, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 54–82.

Murray, Pauli. Papers. Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

——. Song in A Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.

Dayo Folayan Gore

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