Murray, Pauli (1910–1985)

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Murray, Pauli (1910–1985)

African-American civil rights and women's rights activist, lawyer, Episcopal priest, poet, and educator. Name variations: Anna Pauline Murray. Born Anna Pauline Murray on November 20, 1910, in Baltimore, Maryland; died on July 1, 1985, of cancer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; daughter of William Henry Murray (a public school teacher and principal) and Agnes (Fitzgerald) Murray (a nurse); graduated from Hillside High School, Durham, North Carolina, 1926; Hunter College, B.A., 1933; Howard University, LLB cum laude, 1944; University of California, Berkeley, LLM, 1945; Yale University, JD, 1965; General Theological Seminary, MDiv cum laude, 1976; married "Billy," in 1930 (annulled).

Mother died (1914); raised by maternal grandparents and an aunt in North Carolina; after college, worked for Works Progress Administration (WPA) in Workers' Education Project; arrested on segregated bus (1940); served as field secretary for Workers' Defense League; worked with National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) during law school; was first black deputy attorney general of California (1946); ran for New York City Council on Liberal Party ticket (1949); was associate attorney at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, New York (1956–60); was a senior lecturer, Ghana School of Law (1960–61); was a member of the President's Commission on the Status of Women (1961–62); was a founding member of the National Organization for Women (NOW) (1966); served as vice-president, Benedict College, South Carolina (1967–68); was a professor at Brandeis University (1968–73); ordained to Episcopal priesthood (1977); retired from ministry (1984).

Selected writings:

States' Laws on Race and Color (1951); Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family (1956); Dark Testament and Other Poems (1970); Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage (1987).

Pauli Murray's life was one of change and reconciliation. In her 75 years, she not only witnessed but influenced significant events in America. As a poet, lawyer, civil-rights activist, feminist, teacher, and Episcopal priest, Murray had a passionate commitment to justice, based on the interconnectedness and the common humanity of all people, regardless of race or sex. She was conscious of the obstacles she faced as a black woman, and she determined to overcome those obstacles herself and to remove them for others. Murray believed in the sacredness of individuals created in the image of God and in the obligation to transform the earth into a place where everyone had the opportunity to fulfill their potential.

Murray was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1910 and orphaned at an early age. Her mother died when Pauli was four, and her father suffered from chronic illnesses until his death in Crownsville State Hospital in 1923. Pauli was sent to live in Durham, North Carolina, with her maternal grandparents, Cornelia Smith Fitzgerald and Robert George Fitzgerald. Probably the most important figure in her early life was her aunt and namesake, Pauline Fitzgerald Dame , who ultimately adopted Pauli. From her grandfather who had come south from Delaware to teach freed slaves after the Civil War, and Aunt Pauline, also a schoolteacher, Murray developed a love of learning and a devotion to education. She was always both an excellent student and an independent personality. These traits earned Murray high grades in her studies, but her challenges to authority brought her lower marks in conduct. From her grandmother Cornelia, Murray absorbed the story of Cornelia's heritage as the child of a slave and a slaveowner, whose upbringing was supervised by her father's sister, Mary Ruffin Smith . Both grandparents conveyed to Pauli a sense of family and racial pride, which she would later describe in Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family.

Although she graduated from high school at the top of her class, Murray discovered she did not meet the admissions standards for Hunter College where she hoped to enroll. Her deficiencies made her realize that the segregated education available to black students in the South was far from equal. Determined nonetheless to attend Hunter, Murray went to live with relatives in New York City, took additional high school courses, and was admitted in 1928. To fund college during the Great Depression, which began in 1929, Murray was willing to take any of the limited and poorly paying jobs available to black women. In the summer of 1931, she even went to California to find work, and rode the rails, dressed as a teenaged boy, on her return home. While at Hunter, Murray experienced a society of women with a tradition of intellectual rigor that, she recalled in her autobiography, provided a natural training ground for feminism and leadership, enforced egalitarian values, inspired confidence in the competence of women, and encouraged resistance to subordinate roles. During this time, Murray married a man she refers to in Song in a Weary Throat as "Billy." The marriage lasted only a few months and was subsequently annulled.

Employment was scarce, even after Murray graduated from college, and she barely managed to survive with jobs for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the YWCA, and the Workers' Defense League (WDL). But if those jobs paid little in cash, they contributed richly to Murray's developing consciousness. She met strong black role models at the YWCA, independent personalities determined to rise above the limitations imposed on their race and sex and to help younger women to do the same. With the WPA Workers' Education Project, Murray developed an increasing sensitivity to issues of class. She came to see that whites too could be victims of oppression, that workers were being starved, beaten, evicted from their homes, and jailed to prevent union organizing.

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There is no difference between discrimination because of race and discrimination because of sex. … [I]f one is wrong the other is wrong.

—Pauli Murray

For the Workers' Defense League, Murray traveled to raise funds for the defense of Odell Waller, a black sharecropper from Virginia accused of murdering the landlord who had cheated and threatened him. The constitutional issue involved a challenge to the poll tax. Waller had been convicted by an all-white jury drawn from the Virginia voting list of those who had paid poll taxes, a list from which blacks and other poor people were excluded. Therefore, the WDL argued, Waller had been deprived of his constitutional right to a trial by a jury of his peers. Although the effort in Waller's behalf was not successful, it may have been the determining factor in Murray's decision to apply to Howard Law School in 1941. She came to see the knowledge and practice of law as a means for dismantling the structures of segregation and injustice.

At Howard, Murray experienced a school whose small student body shared a deep commitment to ending racial discrimination. But this historically black institution was set in the environment of the segregated capital city, Washington, D.C. For Murray, these were years of intense involvement in the civil-rights struggle. She learned to discipline her intelligence and control her emotions, adopting the motto, "Don't get mad, get smart."

Murray's opposition to discrimination took the form of written words, direct actions, and legal arguments. She published a piece entitled, "Negro Youth's Dilemma," in which she challenged racial bigotry in the U.S. military. She also wrote poetry (beginning work on her poem "Dark Testament"), articles, and began corresponding with Eleanor Roosevelt . Their friendship lasted for over three decades. For Roosevelt, Murray was a voice representing black youth that forced her to continue to examine her own views on race. The two continued to correspond and visit until, immediately before Eleanor Roosevelt's death, they served together on the President's Commission on the Status of Women.

Peaceful protest demonstrations were not a new experience for Pauli Murray. Her first arrest had come in 1935 for picketing a Harlem newspaper because of a union lockout. She had been arrested in 1940 in Petersburg, Virginia, for refusing to accept segregated seating on a bus, and she became an early practitioner of the "jail—no bail" strategy that would be used by later civil-rights demonstrators.

In 1943 and 1944, Murray and her Howard colleagues moved on two fronts to challenge discrimination in Washington, D.C., public accommodations. Murray had studied the philosophy of nonviolent direct action and believed that, combined with "American showmanship," it could achieve results. With other Howard students, she organized sit-ins at several D.C. restaurants, anticipating the sit-ins of the 1960s by two decades. Murray also uncovered an 1872 District of Columbia civil-rights law that had never been repealed. She argued that the law which granted access to public accommodations was still in effect. Although the process took a decade, in 1953 the Supreme Court ruled as Murray had argued in the District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Company.

Perhaps Murray's most significant contribution to the dismantling of segregation laws was her seminal stance that later became incorporated in the arguments in the historic 1954 decision that outlawed school segregation, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. In 1896, the Supreme Court had ruled that the practice of "separate but equal" facilities for blacks and whites was not unconstitutional. Through much of the 20th century, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had chipped away at that decision by bringing a series of cases that challenged the equality of the separate facilities. In her senior thesis, Murray argued that this approach should be abandoned

in favor of a direct attack on the constitutionality of separatism itself. She argued that setting apart one group of people from another did violence to the affected individuals by marking them with a badge of inferiority. She remembered her own experience in segregated schools where children felt the pain of rejection no matter how well behaved and studious they were.

In her legal argument, Murray relied on sociological and psychological arguments, just as NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall would when he argued the Brown case before the Supreme Court. But when Murray raised these arguments in 1944, her professors rejected her approach as "too visionary." Years later, members of the NAACP legal team recalled using Murray's thesis in their preparation for Brown. Likewise, Thurgood Marshall would regard Murray's book, States' Laws on Race and Color, as the NAACP "bible." Murray's contributions to the legal struggle over civil rights in the 1940s and 1950s were extraordinary, yet she received little public acknowledgement. Maybe Murray's ideas would have been taken more seriously and acknowledged more widely had she been male. In her autobiography, Murray compared these efforts to running a relay. "There were times when I didn't even know the outcome of the race, other times when it was my privilege to break the ribbon at the finish line, and still others when I shared an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and exhilaration, even though my contribution had been made early in the contest, not at its culmination."

Graduated at the top of her class at Howard, Murray applied to Harvard Law School for graduate study. Whereas in 1938 the University of North Carolina had rejected her application because "members of your race are not admitted to the University," Harvard rejected her in 1944 because of her gender. Even a letter on her behalf from President Franklin Roosevelt did not help. Murray experienced the same feeling in both situations—one was based on law and involved race, the other was based on custom and involved gender. She saw them as equally unjust, as she was stigmatized on the basis of a characteristic beyond her control. With race, Murray noted that at least she had developed "coping mechanisms." With sex discrimination, she was appalled to encounter the "mild amusement" of her male colleagues, who were at the same time civil-rights activists.

After being refused admission by Harvard, Murray enrolled at the Boalt Hall of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. There she received a master's degree (LLM) in 1945, passed the California bar exam, and became a deputy attorney general of California, the first black to hold that office.

Murray returned to the East to be closer to her Aunt Pauline and Aunt Sallie, who were aging and in poor health. She moved with them to New York City where she practiced law, first in her own office, and after 1956 with the distinguished law firm, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison. During these years, Murray kept up with her writing, both scholarly and creative. She published States' Laws on Race and Color in 1951. The work, the first compilation of its kind, was done on commission for the Women's Division of the Methodist Church. It was a massive legal effort, and brought together Murray's involvement with racial issues, women reformers, and religion. In 1956, she published her family memoir, Proud Shoes. Reissued in 1978, the book told of her heritage, based on the oral traditions and narratives she had heard from her aunts and grandparents. Murray felt impelled to write her family history as a testimony to the contributions blacks had made to American life and as a tribute to the strong women who were her forebears. Several decades later, Alex Haley's Roots would capture the public imagination as a similar example of African-American family history.

Partly out of curiosity about her own African heritage, Murray accepted a position on the faculty of the Ghana School of Law from 1960 to 1961. When she returned to the States, she enrolled for graduate study at the Yale Law School where she received her degree of Doctor of Judicial Science in 1965.

In 1961, Murray had been appointed to President John F. Kennedy's Commission on the Status of Women, to the Subcommittee on Political and Civil Rights. Here, she developed the legal argument that just as the 14th Amendment prohibited racial discrimination and guaranteed "equal protection of the laws," so that amendment could be used to prohibit sex discrimination. Allowing people different legal status based on gender was, Murray wrote, "as pernicious as separate but equal." Murray also prepared legal arguments in support of keeping the prohibition against discrimination based on sex in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Murray continued to link women's rights and civil rights, as she saw both as inseparable parts of the fundamental issue of human rights. That perspective led her to participate as a founding member of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966. She envisioned NOW as a civil-rights organization for women comparable to the NAACP.

In 1968, Brandeis University invited Murray to serve on its faculty, and she remained there for five years, first as professor of American Studies and later as Louis Stulberg Professor of Law and Politics. She also published her volume of poetry, Dark Testament and Other Poems.

During those years, Murray undertook to reexamine her relationship with the Episcopal Church, an institution she had found supportive and sustaining throughout her life. Suddenly struck by the absence of women in the liturgical service, Murray felt that she could not participate in an organization that treated women with discrimination. At the time, there was no Episcopal women's caucus, but individual women were speaking out, forming linkages, and reaching out to find authentic ministries even before the official church validated their roles. These women sustained each other as they challenged the church establishment. Several experiences—participation in the World Council of Churches meeting at Uppsala, Sweden; attendance at the death of a close friend; a sense of the insufficiency of the legal system as a means of social change—convinced Pauli Murray that she had a call to the ministry. She came to feel, even though she was more than 60 years old, that all her experiences had been a preparation for her ultimate religious vocation.

Murray undertook three years of study, including a field experience at a rural Maryland church where her uncle had been vicar, and where her grandmother and aunts had worshipped. The first African-American woman to be ordained by the Episcopal Church, she celebrated her initial Eucharist at the Chapel of the Cross, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. There her grandmother, the child of a slave and a white slaveowner, had been baptized. "Whatever future ministry I might have as a priest," Murray wrote, "it was given to me that day to be a symbol of healing."

Murray devoted the next seven years to parish work and ministry to the sick in Washington, D.C., Alexandria, Virginia, and Baltimore. She retired in 1984 and moved to Pittsburgh, where she died of cancer the following year. Her autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat, was published posthumously.

In her lifetime, Pauli Murray overcame countless barriers and forged many new paths that other women and minorities would be able to follow. She was among the architects of the legal strategy that toppled some of the pillars of racism and sexism. She had the courage to take on challenges in every phase of her life because she was firmly rooted in her family, her traditions, and her vision of possibility. She had a strong faith and always enjoyed a network of support in female friends and relatives. As Caroline Ware concludes in her epilogue to Murray's autobiography, she "pressed through confrontation toward reconciliation."


Burgen, Michele. "Dr. Pauli Murray," in Ebony. September 1979, p. 107–112.

Giddings, Paula. "Fighting Jane Crow," in The Nation. May 23, 1987, p. 689–90.

Miller, Casey, and Swift, Kate. "Pauli Murray," in Ms. March 1980, p. 60–64.

Murray, Pauli. "The Liberation of Black Women," in Women: A Feminist Perspective. Edited by Jo Freeman. Palo Alto: Mayfield, 1975.

——. Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family. NY: Harper and Row, 1956 (reprinted 1978).

——. Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage. NY: Harper and Row, 1987.

suggested reading:

Vick, Martha C. "Pauli Murray," in Epic Lives: One Hundred Black Women Who Made a Difference. Edited by Jessie Carney Smith. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1993.


Pauli Murray's papers are in the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts; photographs of Pauli Murray are in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York.

Mary Welek Atwell , Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Radford University, Radford, Virginia

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Murray, Pauli (1910–1985)

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