Pauli Murray (1910-1985) was a scholar, lawyer, and activist who fought to dismantle segregation and end discrimination through the courts and on the streets. Although less well-known than other civil rights activists, she worked tirelessly on behalf of African-Americans, women, workers, and the poor. With indefatigable courage, optimism, and brilliance, Pauli Murray changed the landscape of opportunity in the United States.
Murray was an early leader and foot-soldier of the civil rights and women’s movements. In these struggles, she stood at the vanguard of history, speaking and acting when her views were unpopular and often dangerous. She worked for tenant and sharecropper rights; led early sit-ins to desegregate public eating establishments in Washington, D.C.; trained others in the methods of nonviolent civil disobedience; helped organize the March on Washington Movement; initiated two different campaigns to integrate universities; and refused to succumb to Jim Crow on a Virginia bus, an episode for which she spent time in jail, years before the Montgomery bus boycott. A founder of the National Organization for Women, Murray fought sex discrimination in the courts and attacked what she called “Jane Crow” in all its forms.
Congressman Eleanor Holmes Norton wrote in the preface to Murray’s autobiography, “Pauli never lived in the past. She lived on the edge of history, seeming to pull it along with her. She was a civil rights activist before there was activism, and a feminist when feminists could not be found.” As Glenda Gilmore, the Peter V. & C. Vann Woodward Professor of History at Yale, wrote, “Murray’s refusal to abide by segregation custom and law, her conscious practice of nonviolent direct action, her decision to serve her prison sentence, and her determination to link her individual oppression to that of her people all represent strategies that made Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King icons of the civil rights movement fifteen years later.”
Born in Baltimore, Murray was raised largely in Durham, North Carolina, by her grandparents and aunt. Murray had deep roots in North Carolina. Her white great-great-grandfather, James Strudwick Smith, was a prominent slaveholder and a trustee of the University of North Carolina, one of the institutions Pauli Murray would later attempt to integrate. His son, Sidney Smith, was Murray’s great-grandfather—a violent man who raped her great-grandmother, Harriet, an enslaved woman who worked for the Smiths. Pauli’s grandmother, Cornelia Smith, was conceived during one of his attacks. After the Civil War, Cornelia married Robert Fitzgerald, a black teacher from the North. For Pauli Murray, this family history saturated her sense of self and her place in the nation. In a 1945 essay, “An American Credo,” she declared, “I am an American.” She explained that some of her ancestors came as immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England, while others were aboard “chattel-ships from Africa” and still others were “indigenous.” This mixed heritage, she argued, animated her activism: “I will resist every attempt to categorize me, to place me in some caste, or to assign me to some segregated pigeonhole,” she declared.
From an early age, Murray wanted to escape the “segregated pigeonhole” of the South. After high school she moved to New York, where she attended Hunter College. Impoverished and often hungry, Murray had to take time off from her studies to work, but she graduated in 1933. During the Great Depression, she rode the rails dressed as a man until she found employment with the Works Progress Administration. She met Eleanor Roosevelt when the first lady visited the work camp where she was assigned. Murray refused to stand when Roosevelt entered the room, an infraction that earned her expulsion from the camp. But even in that bit of youthful impetuosity, she attracted Roosevelt’s attention and laid the groundwork for their future correspondence and a deep, lifelong friendship.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Murray worked for a variety of causes aimed at fighting inequality, racism, and oppression. But she also worked tirelessly to improve herself, and her personal efforts to gain admittance to institutions of higher learning led to national struggles to gain civil rights for all people. In 1938, Murray applied to the University of North Carolina to pursue graduate studies in sociology. She was rejected on the basis of her race, despite a Supreme Court ruling that year requiring state schools to provide education to black as well as white students. Largely working on her own, Murray corresponded with the university’s president, Frank Porter Graham, sending copies of their letters to the African-American press and imploring Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP to take her case. The university denied Murray admission, and the NAACP refused to represent her—a decision that was most likely based on her “maverick” tendencies as well as questions about her gender and sexual identity.
Although Murray failed to integrate the University of North Carolina, her efforts helped push the boundaries of the possible, challenging not only white segregationists but white and black liberals to expand their visions of equality. She believed her case was part of a larger struggle, one that would hold the status quo up against the standard set by the founding principles of the United States. As she wrote to President Graham:
“…the Constitution of North Carolina is inconsistent with the Constitution of the United States and should be changed to meet the ideals set forth by the first citizens of our country…. We of the younger generation cannot compromise with our ideals of human equality. We have seen the consequences of such compromises in the bloody pages of human history, and we must hold fast, using all of our passion and our reason.”
It was not the last time Murray would invoke the “ideals” of the nation’s “first citizens” to claim the full rights of citizenship for all people. She insisted that being an American meant contesting racism, segregation, and injustice of all kinds. “I must make myself worthy to be called an American,” Murray wrote in 1945. “I would bring shame and disgrace upon the United States’ flag if I tolerated for one moment any practice of discrimination, segregation, or prejudice against any human being because of an accident of birth which has determined race, color, sex, or nationality and helped to shape his or her creed.” Again invoking the founders’ vision, she declared, “with my feet rooted firmly in the moral precepts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States and all the preachments of humanitarian tradition throughout the history of man, I take my stand against the institution of segregation and all of its incidents.” Segregation, she believed, was a “monster” that “must be rooted out of our national life.”
Indeed, Murray bridled at segregation in all its forms. In the 1940s, while riding a bus to visit her aunt in Virginia, she and her friend were arrested for seeming to defy Jim Crow conventions on a Greyhound bus. Jailed in Petersburg, Virginia, Murray drew on a vast network of friends and colleagues, including Eleanor Roosevelt, for help. She again hoped that her arrest would lead to the courts and allow her to challenge segregation. Yet despite initial assistance from the NAACP, the case did not become a springboard for challenging the constitutionality of “separate but equal.” Instead, she and her friend served their jail sentences.
Murray’s experiences repeatedly turned her toward the law. A few months after her arrest, she found herself working on a capital murder case even though she had never attended law school. Odell Waller, a sharecropper in Virginia, was accused of killing his landlord in Virginia in a dispute over the division of the crop. Although he claimed self-defense, Waller was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to die. Murray joined a team of lawyers and civil rights activists working on Waller’s behalf. In the course of events, she met Dr. Leon Ransom, professor of law at Howard University. Ransom was so impressed with Murray that he encouraged her to apply to Howard’s law school. She continued to work on Waller’s appeal, arguing that the “poll-tax” jury that convicted him was unconstitutional. Murray, however, was not a lawyer, and she watched as the sharecropper’s trial unfolded, with his lawyer making a few missteps along the way. “I kept saying to myself as this happened…‘If we lose this man’s life, I must study law.’ And we lost his life.” Murray entered the Howard University School of Law in 1941. The sharecropper Odell Waller was executed the following year.
Throughout her life, Pauli Murray responded to setbacks and obstacles with a renewed sense of purpose. Later reflecting on her many efforts on behalf of minority and women’s rights, she remarked, “In not a single one of these little campaigns was I victorious…In each case, I personally failed, but I have lived to see the thesis upon which I was operating vindicated and what I very often say is that I’ve lived to see my lost causes found.” It would be many years before she would see these “lost causes found.” But in the early 1940s, Murray continued to soldier on, a pioneer in the civil rights movement. After her arrest in Virginia, she began to study more intently Gandhi’s teachings on nonviolence, and she briefly lived in an ashram. As a law student at Howard, she organized and led sit-ins aimed at integrating whites-only eating establishments in Washington, D.C. She trained others in the methods of civil disobedience. Although the sit-ins were successful in forcing at least some establishments to serve African Americans, the Howard administration demanded that the students end their demonstration. White newspapers refused to cover the protests, and this early use of nonviolence was mostly forgotten until it became one of the hallmarks of the civil rights movement fifteen years later. Murray understood these struggles as part of a much larger movement toward justice and equality. As she told her protégés during training for the sit-ins: “No matter what happens to you temporarily, whether you are served in a restaurant, or go to prison, or get slapped down, the resources of human history are behind you and the future of human society is on your side, if there is to be any human society in the future. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
Murray continued to work as if the “future of human society” was on her side. During World War II, she helped organize the March on Washington Movement. Like many African-American activists in the 1930s and 1940s, she believed the war against fascism would only be truly won if the United States could also expand democracy on the home front. After graduating first in her class (and the only female) from Howard’s law school in 1944, she applied to Harvard Law School. Despite her top grades at Howard and a letter from Harvard alumnus and United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harvard denied her application because she was not “of the sex entitled to be admitted to Harvard Law School.” Undeterred, Murray moved west and received a master’s of law degree from the University of California at Berkeley, the following year. In 1946, she was named a deputy attorney general in California, making her the first black person in the state’s attorney general’s office. From 1956 to 1960 she was an attorney with the New York law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. She was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1960.
Building on her legal training and experience in the civil rights movement, Murray became a leading figure in the American feminist movement. While pursuing her doctorate of law at Yale, she served on the Civil and Political Rights Committee of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women. During this time, Murray developed pioneering legal arguments linking race and sex discrimination based on the equal protection provided by the Fourteenth Amendment. She proposed a novel litigation strategy for expanding women’s rights along the same lines used by the NAACP in its attack on segregation.
Throughout the 1960s, Murray worked to develop strategies that would bring together advocates for civil rights and women’s rights. Always believing that the struggles for women’s and civil rights were linked, she helped form broad coalitions and alliances among lawyers and activists. In 1966, she helped found the National Organization for Women, and she also served on the national board of the American Civil Liberties Union. Murray had first articulated the idea of “Jane Crow” in a law school paper in 1944, but it would be two decades before that phrase reached a broad public. In 1965, she and Mary Eastwood published “Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII,” in the George Washington Law Review. The concept was always close to Murray’s heart. As she wrote to Kay Clarenbach, a friend and the chair of NOW’s national board, “I hold the status of several Minorities…I cannot allow myself to be fragmented into Negro at one time, woman at another, or worker at another, I must find a unifying principle in all of these movements to which I can adhere.”Murray described her identification with multiple marginalized groups—what scholars and activists today would call “intersectionality”—as the “conjunction” of race and gender. In her battles against both “Jane Crow” and “Jim Crow,” she insisted on the dignity and humanity of all people.
All her life, Pauli Murray valued both teaching and learning. An inveterate scholar, she ultimately earned degrees from Hunter College, Howard University, the University of California at Berkeley, Yale, and the General Theological Seminary. She was a senior lecturer at Ghana University’s law school in Accra. From 1967 to 1968, Murray was a vice president at Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, leaving to become a professor at Brandeis University, where she earned tenure and taught until 1973. She was the first person to teach African-American studies and women’s studies at Brandeis. In 1971, she was named Louis Stulberg Professor of Law and Politics at Brandeis—becoming the first person to hold the chair named for the president of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. It was a fitting honor, as Murray had worked closely with the ILGWU decades earlier.
She was also a noted author and poet. In addition to States’ Laws on Race and Color, which Thurgood Marshall described as the bible for lawyers fighting segregation laws. Murray also wrote The Constitution and Government of Ghana, a collection of poems, Dark Testament and Other Poems, and two memoirs, Proud Shoes and Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage. Throughout her lifetime, she wove her scholarly interests together with her commitment to social justice, committing her knowledge and fiercely analytical mind to the service of causes she believed in.
After decades on the front lines of the civil rights and women’s rights struggles—causes she considered inseparable—Murray broke yet another barrier. At the age of 63, she became the first black woman ordained as an Episcopal priest. After her ordination, she celebrated the Eucharist in the same church in North Carolina where her white slaveholding and black enslaved families had worshipped, albeit in different sections. Murray held a Bible given to her by her grandmother, born a slave, and spoke at a lectern donated in honor of her great-grand-aunt, who had owned her grandmother. Murray described her decision to join the priesthood as part of her commitment to “reconciliation as well as liberation,” in the tradition of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 1979, at age 69, Pauli Murray was awarded an honorary doctor of divinity degree at Yale’s Commencement. In presenting this honor to her, President A. Bartlett Giamatti said, “Diligent scholar, gifted poet, respected lawyer and teacher, insistent prophet and faithful priest, you have nurtured the gifts of the spirit for the common good. You are an inspiration to those who seek the upward way for the soul and for society. Others have always followed after. Alumna at Yale in jurisprudence, Yale University takes great pleasure in awarding you the degree of Doctor of Divinity.”
In her final days, serving as a priest and ministering to people from all walks of life, Pauli Murray continued to live the credo she had articulated decades before: “I do not intend to destroy segregation by physical force. That would entail human waste and would not gain my objectives. I hope to see it destroyed by a power greater than all the robot bombs and explosives of human creation—by a power of the spirit, an appeal to the intelligence of man, a laying hold of the creative and dynamic impulses within the minds of men.”
Her words reflect the courage, love, and expansive vision of a woman who devoted her life to service and justice:
“I intend to destroy segregation by positive and embracing methods. When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them. Where they speak out for the privileges of a puny group, I shall shout for the rights of all mankind. I shall neither supplicate, threaten, nor cajole my country or her people. With humility but with pride I shall offer one small life, whether in a foxhole or in wheatfield, for whatever it is worth, to fulfill the prophesy that all men are created equal.”
Azaransky, Sarah. The Dream Is Freedom: Pauli Murray and American Democratic Faith. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Bell-Scott, Patricia. The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.
Gilmore, Glenda Elizabeth. “Admitting Pauli Murray.” Journal of Women’s History 14, no. 2 (2002): 62–67.
—. Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009.
Mack, Kenneth W. Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.
Mayeri, Serena. Reasoning from Race: Feminism, Law, and the Civil Rights Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.
Murray, Pauli. Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.
Pinn, Anthony B., ed. Pauli Murray: Selected Sermons and Writings. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006.
—. Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
Scott, Anne Firor, ed. Pauli Murray and Caroline Ware: Forty Years of Letters in Black and White. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
Papers of Pauli Murray, 1827-1985
Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
Finding Aid: http://oasis.lib.harvard.edu/oasis/deliver/~sch00067
The Pauli Murray Project
Oral History Interview with Pauli Murray, February 13, 1976. Interview G-0044. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. http://docsouth.unc.edu/sohp/G-0044/menu.html
 Pauli Murray, “An American Credo,” Common Ground 5, no. 2 (1945): 22-24. http://www.unz.org/Pub/CommonGround-1945q4-00022.
 Pauli Murray to Frank. P. Graham, Feb. 6, 1939, Folder 521, Office of President Frank Porter Graham Records, 1932-1949, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, UNC University Archives. http://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/40007/id/232.
 Oral History Interview with Pauli Murray, February 13, 1976. Interview G-0044. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. http://docsouth.unc.edu/sohp/G-0044/menu.html. Accessed April 18, 2016. Hereafter Murray Oral History.
 “Pauli Murray Named to Deputy Attorney General: Former Baltimorean 1st in Justice Department Howard Graduate Who Led Equality Fights in N.C. Schools and at Yale University Breaks Sacramento Bars,” Afro-American (1893-1988), January 19, 1946.
 “1st Negro Woman Priest Holds Service in N.C.,” Washington Post, Feb. 25, 1977, D14; “The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray and the Episcopal Church,” The Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, http://www.dionc.org/pauli-murray-resources.html. Accessed 19 April 2016; Murray Oral History.