Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray (1910-1985)
Anna Murray’s life and legacy are so very rich I recommend that you follow the links at the end of this entry to read her full story (my copy of one of the books listed for further reading is on its way to me). She is another of the many, it seems, unsung she-roes who had an indelible impact on the social justice changes that have taken place in our country. Her story is not only inspirational, it is hopeful for those of us who might find ourselves in our latter years and wondering what comes next. “Renaissance woman” is how Marvin McMickle describes her in the beginning of his entry about her in the Encyclopedia of African American Christian Heritage. Murray was a poet, author, attorney, and in 1977 became the first African American woman and the second woman ordained to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church (which is why her entry appears today). What follows are excerpts from the linked entries.
The wager was ten dollars. It was 1944, and the law students of Howard University were discussing how best to bring an end to Jim Crow. In the half century since Plessy v. Ferguson, lawyers had been chipping away at segregation by questioning the “equal” part of the “separate but equal” doctrine—arguing that, say, a specific black school was not truly equivalent to its white counterpart. Fed up with the limited and incremental results, one student in the class proposed a radical alternative: why not challenge the “separate” part instead?
That student’s name was Pauli Murray. Her law-school peers were accustomed to being startled by her—she was the only woman among them and first in the class—but that day they laughed out loud. Her idea was both impractical and reckless, they told her; any challenge to Plessy would result in the Supreme Court affirming it instead. Undeterred, Murray told them they were wrong. Then, with the whole class as her witness, she made a bet with her professor, a man named Spottswood Robinson: ten bucks said Plessy would be overturned within twenty-five years.
Murray was right. Plessy was overturned in a decade—and, when it was, Robinson owed her a lot more than ten dollars. In her final law-school paper, Murray had formalized the idea she’d hatched in class that day, arguing that segregation violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. Some years later, when Robinson joined with Thurgood Marshall and others to try to end Jim Crow, he remembered Murray’s paper, fished it out of his files, and presented it to his colleagues—the team that, in 1954, successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education.
By the time Murray learned of her contribution, she was nearing fifty, two-thirds of the way through a life as remarkable for its range as for its influence. A poet, writer, activist, labor organizer, legal theorist, and Episcopal priest, Murray palled around in her youth with Langston Hughes, joined James Baldwin at the MacDowell Colony the first year it admitted African-Americans, maintained a twenty-three-year friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, and helped Betty Friedan found the National Organization for Women. Along the way, she articulated the intellectual foundations of two of the most important social-justice movements of the twentieth century: first, when she made her argument for overturning Plessy, and, later, when she co-wrote a law-review article subsequently used by a rising star at the A.C.L.U.—one Ruth Bader Ginsburg—to convince the Supreme Court that the Equal Protection Clause applies to women.
Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray was born in Baltimore on 20th November, 1910. Her mother, Agnes Murray died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1914. Her father, William Murray, was a graduate of Howard University and taught in a local high school. He suffered from the long-term effects of typhoid fever and eventually was confined to Crownsville State Hospital where he was murdered by a guard in 1923. Pauli went to live with her aunt, Pauline Fitzgerald, an elementary school teacher and her grandparents Robert and Cornelia Fitzgerald in Durham, North Carolina.
After Murray graduated from Howard University in 1944 she wanted to enroll at Harvard University to continue her law studies. In her application for a Rosenwald Fellowship, she listed Harvard as her first choice. She was awarded the prestigious fellowship but after the award had been announced, Harvard Law School rejected her because of her gender. Murray went to the University Of California Boalt School Of Law where she received a degree in law. Her master’s thesis was The Right to Equal Opportunity in Employment. Murray moved to New York City and provided support to the growing civil rights movement. Her book, States’ Laws on Race and Color, was published in 1951. Thurgood Marshall, head of the legal department at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), described the book as the Bible for civil rights lawyers. In 1952 she lost a post at Cornell University because the people who had supplied her references: Eleanor Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall, and Philip Randolph, were considered to be too radical. She was told in a letter that they decided to give “one hundred per cent protection” to the university “in view of the troublous times in which we live”.
In 1956 Murray published Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family, biography of her grandparents, and their struggle with racial prejudice and a poignant portrayal of her hometown of Durham. In 1960 Murray travelled to Ghana to explore her African cultural roots. When she returned President John F. Kennedy appointed her to his Committee on Civil and Political Rights. In the early 1960s Murray worked closely with Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King but was critical of the way that men dominated the leadership of these civil rights organizations. In August, 1963, she wrote to Randolph and pointed out that she had: “been increasingly perturbed over the blatant disparity between the major role which Negro women have played and are playing in the crucial grass-roots levels of our struggle and the minor role of leadership they have been assigned in the national policy-making decisions.”
Since her death additional books have been published about her life and work (see below).
An Encyclopedia of African American Christian Heritage by Marvin McMickle
Anne Firor Scott’s, Pauli Murray & Caroline Ware: Forty Years of Letters in Black and White
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.
Finn, Anthony B., ed. Pauli Murray: Selected Sermons and Writings. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006.
Gilmore, Glenda Elizabeth. Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009.
Mayeri, Serena. Reasoning from Race: Feminism, Law, and the Civil Rights Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.
Rosenberg, Rosalind. Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.