Reverend Pauli Murray was born on November 20, 1910 (to July 1, 1985). She was a pioneering civil rights and women’s rights activist, lawyer, writer, and cleric. Murray was the co-founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW), a founding member of the Congress of Racial Equality, and the first woman to be awarded a Juris Doctor degree from Yale University. She was also the first Black woman ordained as an Episcopalian priest.
The Reverend Dr. Anna Pauline Murray was a descendant of a North Carolina slave and slave owner, and born in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1914, her mother, Agnes Fitzgerald Murray, died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Her father, schoolteacher William H. Murray, was unable to care for her, so she went to Durham, North Carolina, where she was raised by her maternal grandparents and an aunt, in whose first-grade class she learned to read. Two other aunts also took a keen interest in Murray’s upbringing and education. Her father was murdered in 1923.
Best known as simply Pauli, Reverend Dr. Pauline Murray moved to New York at the age of sixteen to attend Hunter College, after she had previously been rejected by Columbia University because they did not admit women at the time. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Hunter in 1933. Murray was then rejected by the University of North Carolina because she was African American. She attempted to challenge the decision with the help of the NAACP, but they turned down the case due to her being a resident of New York. In 1941, Murray began attending Howard University’s law school, with hopes of becoming a civil rights lawyer. The following year, while still in law school, she became one of the founders of the Congress of Racial Equality.
Pauli Murray worked briefly for the Workers’ Defense League (WDL), a socialist labor rights organization, and became active in the case of Odell Waller, a Black Virginia sharecropper sentenced to death for killing his white landlord, Oscar Davis, during an argument. The WDL argued that Davis had cheated Waller, and that Waller had fired in legitimate fear of his life. Murray toured the country raising funds for Waller’s appeal, and also wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on Waller’s behalf. Roosevelt in turn wrote to Virginia Governor James Hubert Price, asking him to guarantee that the trial was fair, and later persuaded the president to privately request that the death sentence be commuted. Through this correspondence, Murray and Roosevelt began a friendship that would last until the latter’s death two decades later. Despite the WDL’s and Roosevelt’s efforts, however, Waller was executed on July 2, 1942.
While in law school, Pauli Murray also published two important articles on civil rights, one about the Harlem race riot, and another entitled “Negroes Are Fed Up.” Murray was the only woman in her law school class at Howard, and it was there that she first became aware of sexism. She spoke out about Jane Crow, the sister of the Jim Crow racial segregation laws. Despite this, she was elected chief justice of the Howard Court of Peers, the highest student position at Howard. In 1944, Murray graduated first in her class. Although men who graduated first in the class had been given the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship for graduate work at Harvard University, Murray was rejected because of her gender. This occurred despite President Roosevelt writing a letter in support of her, after Murray herself had written to the First Lady.
Pauli Murray instead attended the University of California’s law school at Berkeley, where her master’s thesis was “The Right to Equal Opportunity in Employment,” the first master’s thesis ever published on the topic. It was published later as “Black Theology and Feminist Theology: A Comparative View,” in the “Anglican Theological Review.” After only three weeks of study, Murray passed the California bar exam, although her graduate law advisor had insisted shortcomings in her background would cause her to fail. In 1950, she published “States’ Laws on Race and Color,” which Thurgood Marshall called “the Bible for civil rights lawyers.” The NAACP used her arguments while arguing Brown v. Board of Education.
Murray was appointed to the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, and in 1963, she became one of the first to criticize the sexism of the civil rights movement. In her speech, “The Negro Woman and the Quest for Equality,” she criticized the fact that in the 1963 March on Washington, no women were invited to make one of the major speeches or to be part of its delegation of leaders who went to the White House.
In 1965, Murray published her most famous article (coauthored by Mary Eastwood), “Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII” in the “George Washington Law Review.” It discussed Title VII as it applied to women, and drew comparisons between discriminatory laws against women and Jim Crow laws. She earned her Juris Doctor degree from Yale in 1965—the first African American to do so—and briefly taught law at the University of Ghana.
Murray co-founded the National Organization for Women in 1966, and helped draft its statement of purpose. From 1968-1973, she served as the Distinguished Professor of Law and Politics at Brandeis University, and her essay, “The Liberation of Black Women,” appeared in the book “Voices of the New Feminism,” which analyzed how Black women suffered from racism and sexism. She wrote books on a wide range of topics, and also published her poetry, which included “Dark Testament and Other Poems” in the 1970s.
In 1977, Murray left academia for the Episcopal Church, becoming the first Black woman ordained as an Episcopal priest. A vote at the 2012 General Convention of the Episcopal Church named her to “Holy Men, Holy Women,” a book of the church which honors “people whose lives have exemplified what it means to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and make a difference in the world.” This action essentially made her an Episcopal saint.
Murray struggled with her sexual and gender identity through much of her life. Her marriage as a teenager ended almost immediately with the realization that “when men try to make love to me, something in me fights.” She described herself as having an “inverted sex instinct,” and had several relationships with women. In her younger years, Murray occasionally passed as a teenage boy. Her writings and her close relationships with so many out lesbians have been interpreted to reveal that she was same-gender loving. Murray pursued hormone treatments in the 1940s to correct what she saw as a personal imbalance, and even requested abdominal surgery to test if she had “submerged” male sex organs.
In addition to her legal work, Murray wrote two volumes of autobiography and a collection of poetry. Her first autobiographical book, “Proud Shoes,” published in 1956, traces her family’s complicated racial origins, particularly focusing on her grandparents, Robert and Cornelia Fitzgerald. Cornelia was the daughter of a slave raped by her owner and his brother, while Robert was a free Black from Pennsylvania who had come to the South as a teacher in the Reconstruction Era.
Murray published a collection of her poetry, “Dark Testament and Other Poems,” in 1970. The volume contains what critic Christina G. Bucher calls a number of “conflicted love poems,” as well as exploring economic and racial injustice. The collection has received little critical attention, and as of 2007, was out of print. A follow-up volume to “Proud Shoes,” “Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage,” was published posthumously in 1987, and focused on Murray’s own life, particularly her struggles with both gender and racial discrimination. It received the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, the Christopher Award, and the Lillian Smith Award.
Pauli Murray died of cancer on July 1, 1985, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She spent much of her life breaking down the barriers of race and gender in the fight for equality. Murray received numerous awards for her contributions to society, including honorary degrees from Dartmouth College, Radcliffe College, and Yale University.
The Pauli Murray Awards, named in her honor, are presented annually by the Orange County Human Relations Commission to a person or businesses who have served the community with distinction in the pursuit of equality, justice, and human rights for all residents. The Pauli Murray Project in Durham, North Carolina honors those in service to others.
In 2015, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the childhood home of Murray (on Carroll Street in Durham, North Carolina) as a National Treasure. The next year, Yale University selected Murray as the namesake of one of two new residential colleges, and the Pauli Murray Family Home was named as a National Historic Landmark.
We remember The Reverend Dr. Anna Pauline Murray as a pioneer of the civil rights and women’s rights movements, for her bravery and scholarly writings in pursuit of freedom, and for her many contributions to our community.