Home > Uncategorized > Pauli Murray, America’s most pivotal unknown civil rights leader – posted 10/29/2022

Pauli Murray, America’s most pivotal unknown civil rights leader – posted 10/29/2022

The conventional tale of American history leaves out so much. We learn about the Founding Fathers, presidents and generals. We are less likely to learn about civil rights leaders, no matter how outstanding. Pauli Murray falls into that category of unknowns. Born in 1910, she may be the hero who most has escaped attention, recognition and appreciation.

Murray was a leader in the struggle against race and sex discrimination, a lawyer, a poet, an author, and an Episcopal priest. She was a pathbreaker almost before there was a path. Even though she was a pivotal figure, she is barely known.

In her new book, Lady Justice, the legal writer, Dahlia Lithwick, gives Murray the prominence she deserves. There is also a very good documentary about her titled My Name is Pauli Murray that is available on Prime.

Her story is remarkable for the adversities she overcame. She was an orphan. Her mother died when she was 3 and her father was committed to a psychiatric institution where he died after being beaten by a racist guard. She went to live with her Aunt Pauline in Durham, North Carolina.

Murray, as a young African American girl, grew up in a world defined by racism. In that time, the Klan was powerful and 50-60 people were lynched yearly in the South. Danger was omnipresent. Murray went to segregated schools. Her aunt taught school and she accompanied her aunt to classes and learned to read at age 5, She remained a voracious reader and writer her whole life.

In 1938, she applied to the University of North Carolina and received a rejection letter which stated “members of your race are not admitted to UNC”. Later, after going to Hunter College and Howard University Law School, where she graduated first in her class, Harvard Law School would not accept her for graduate study even though accepting the number one graduate had been a Howard tradition. The reason for her rejection was being a woman.

When in Howard Law, she was the only woman in her class her first two years. One professor told her he didn’t know why women went to law school. Murray said she experienced Jane Crow – not just Jim Crow.

From an early age, she was gender non-conforming. She called herself Pauli rather than her birth name Anna Pauline. She believed she was a man trapped in a woman’s body. Her Aunt Pauline, who doted on her and gave her unconditional love, called Pauli my “boy/girl”. She tried unsuccessfully to get hormone treatment. It would appear she was transgender before that word existed. Her gender issues were a source of enormous distress and turmoil throughout her life.

Murray opposed segregation from an early age. She walked everywhere and refused to ride segregated streetcars. In 1940, 15 years before Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus, Murray and a friend, Adelene McBean, refused to move to the back of a bus when it crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. She and McBean were jailed in Virginia for this racial heresy.

Undaunted, Murray contacted the NAACP. She wanted to challenge segregation. In the process she met Thurgood Marshall who then worked for the NAACP. Although that case did not go forward because the judge reduced charges to disturbing the peace. Murray became enthralled by lawyering. She saw it as a way to fight back. She started being an adviser to the NAACP.

At the time Murray started practicing law in the mid-1940’s, there were only about 100 African American women lawyers in the United States. Legal jobs were hard to get, especially for minorities and women but the Methodist Church hired Murray to write an explanation of segregation laws in America as the church wanted to understand its legal obligations.

Murray produced a 746 page book, State Laws on Race and Color.. Marshall called it “the Bible” for civil rights litigation. A creative thinker, Murray pioneered new legal theories for fighting race and sex discrimination.

She argued the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment should be used to overturn Plessy v Ferguson, the Supreme Court case that had upheld “separate but equal”. She believed state segregation laws should be challenged as unconstitutional rather than trying to prove the inequalities of “separate but equal”. She foresaw the end of Plessy long before others in the legal world did. In 1944 she wrote her senior law school paper about it.

She also pioneered the use of the 14th Amendment to attack gender discrimination. Ruth Bader Ginsberg put Murray’s name on the Supreme Court brief she wrote in the landmark sex discrimination case, Reed v Reed, because of Murray’s theoretical contribution. Ginsberg relied on a law review article co-wriiten by Murray.

Behind the scenes, Murray was showing how equal protection applied to women. That was a novel position then. For both Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Murray was a powerful influence.

Murray herself co-counselled a successful case in Alabama that held that women had an equal right to serve on juries.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s wife Eleanor developed a close relationship with Murray. Mrs Roosevelt became almost a surrogate mother. Murray had written both Roosevelts complaining about the failure to enforce civil rights law. She and Mrs Roosevelt corresponded regularly and became confidantes.

Her legal career had many different incarnations. After a stint as a Deputy Attorney General in California and also as a corporate lawyer in New York City, she moved to Africa and taught law in Ghana, She later became a professor at Brandeis. Along the way, she, along with Betty Friedan, co-founded the National Organization of Women. She served on the national board of the ACLU from 1965-1974.

In the last phase of her life, Murray shocked many by resigning her tenured job at Brandeis to become an Episcopal priest. She was a deeply religious person and the first African American woman to be ordained in the Episcopal church. She said, “What I say very often is that I’ve lived to see my lost causes found”. Murray died in 1985.

Her poem Dark Testament contains two lines which capture her:

“I speak for my race and my people
The human race and just people.”

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Sue DeWitt-Burns
    October 30, 2022 at 12:31 am

    Interesting timing, since we were just pulling her name out of our hats

  2. Patricia A Dawson
    October 30, 2022 at 2:30 am

    Thanks for introducing me to this previously unknown person to me!

  3. jlewandohotmailcom
    October 30, 2022 at 11:44 pm

    A trailblazer like Pauli should be in every American history book. Lady Justice is now on my reading list. Thank you!

    • October 30, 2022 at 11:55 pm

      Dahlia Lithwick is excellent. I don’t know if you listen to podcasts but her podcast Amicus is very good too.

  4. jlewandohotmailcom
    October 31, 2022 at 2:22 pm

    I haven’t listened to her podcast. I’ll let our daughter-in-law, who’s an attorney, know about it, too.

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