“If one could characterize in a single phrase the contribution of Black women to America, I think it would be ‘survival with dignity against incredible odds’…” – Pauli Murray, “Black Women-A Heroic Tradition and a Challenge” (1977)
History has nearly forgotten Pauli Murray, the Black Queer Civil Rights Lawyer who was also a Feminist and Episcopalian Priest. Arrested fifteen years before Rosa Parks for sitting in the white section on a bus, Pauli was organizing sit-ins twenty years before the Greensboro sit-ins! Yale Law School bestowed on Pauli a JSD (Doctor of the Science of Law) making her/them the first Black person to receive a law degree from the prestigious institution (1965). Ahead of her/their time in so many ways, s/he worked tirelessly behind the scenes. It was Pauli’s shoulders Ruth Bader Ginsburg stood on as she(RBG) argued Reed v. Reed—Pauli (co-author) having provided the legal research for RBG’s argument against preferential treatment based on sex. Co-founder of the National Organization for Women, s/he challenged gender and racial discrimination in religious and academia circles as well as legal and societal groups. It was Pauli who coined the name “Jane Crow” as s/he helped build the foundations of two crucial social justice movements of the 20th century.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Anna Pauline Murray (1910-1985) was raised mostly by her maternal aunts and grandparents in Durham, North Carolina. Ancestors on both sides included Black slaves, White slave owners, Irish, Native Americans, and free Black people—a regular “United Nations in miniature.” With an ancestral line filled with educators, it’s no surprise Pauli grew into a talented poet, inspiring professor, learned autobiographer and historian, empathic attorney, brilliant legal theorist and trail-blazing Episcopalian priest.
Pauli’s road to higher education was a bumpy one, despite her/their intelligence. When s/he attempted to enroll at Columbia University, Pauli was turned away because the university did not admit women. S/he returned to Hunter College earning her/their Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 1933. For a while after graduation, Pauli taught remedial reading for the WPA Workers Defense League. A short while later s/he met and was befriended by Eleanor Roosevelt. Theirs would turn out to be a life-changing friendship. It was during the 1930s that Pauli began struggling with her/their gender orientation, going so far as to seek out hormone treatments.
Applying to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill (for a PhD in sociology-1938) again led to being turned away—this time because of race. Writing to many officials, which included President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and then publishing the responses brought no change to the school’s attitude toward Pauli. Inspired by her many personal experiences of racial and sexual discrimination, Pauli began attending Howard University law school to study civil rights law.
From her/their first day attending classes at Howard, Pauli felt the sexism in the law school classes. Against the sexual bias displayed (even by some professors) s/he blazed forward calling herself “Jane Crow.” A popular student, s/he was elected chief justice of the Howard Court of Peers (the highest student position at Howard) before graduating first in her/their class (1944). Traditionally, a Yale scholarship was award to the highest achieving student. Because Yale did not admit women, Pauli fought hard for the scholarship—appealing once again to the White House for help. Despite Roosevelt’s support, s/he was not admitted.
Pauli found herself studying law at the University of California, Berkeley. S/he passed the California bar in 1945, the same year the National Council of Negro Women named her/them its “Woman of the Year.” Mademoiselle magazine followed suit in 1947. Pauli’s ongoing activism and publications were being recognized across the nation. Her legal arguments and law interpretations of the U.S. Constitution became winning strategies for discrimination in public schools, workplace rights for women, and most especially—an extension of rights to LGBTQ+ people based on Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
In 1961, President John Kennedy appointed Pauli to the “Presidential Committee on the Status of Women”. Pauli was the first person to criticize the civil rights movement's sexism when she authored the speech "The Negro Woman in the Quest for Equality". Here are her exact words from a 1963 letter she addressed to civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, “I have been increasingly perturbed over the blatant disparity between the major role which Negro women have played and are playing in the crucial grassroots levels of our struggle and the minor role of leadership they have been assigned in the national policy-making decisions. It is indefensible to call a national march on Washington and send out a call which contains the name of not a single woman leader.” Apparently someone listened to Pauli, Daisy Bates did speak briefly in place of Myrlie Evers (Medgar Evers new widow).
Gutsy and powerful, Pauli traveled the world speaking out and speaking up against discrimination. Inspired by other Episcopalian women, s/he left Brandeis University (where she was a Professor) to attend a theological seminary. At age 67, Pauli became the first African American woman to earn a Master of Divinity. Can you imagine starting a whole new career after age 65? Many of us are, and we stand on Pauli’s shoulders! A trail-blazer her/their whole life, you and I can do the same.
DID YOU KNOW?
1.) The Episcopal Church conferred the designation of saint on Rev. Murray in 2012.
2.) Yale Law School opened a residential college in Pauli’s name in 2017.
3.) S/he was the first African American to be awarded a doctorate in Law from Yale as well as the first African American woman to become an ordained Episcopal Priest after s/he earned a Master of Divinity degree.