#InContext: Pauli Murray

By: RACHEL GEISSLER

Unsung heroine of the civil rights movement and lifelong champion of human rights, Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray penned the words to her poem “Prophecy” in 1969. As a black woman born in America in 1910, she battled barriers to education and inclusion at every turn. For Murray, the decision to challenge oppression and dedicate her life to social justice liberated her mind and gave her hope for the future. Undaunted by obstacles, she became an activist, lawyer, teacher, writer and priest. Her trailblazing legacy remains an inspiration to others seeking equality.

Murray grew up in Durham, North Carolina, where she was raised by relatives after having been orphaned at a young age. Frustrated by the many restrictions placed on her life by Jim Crow segregation in the South, she attended a college in New York City, where she befriended Langston Hughes and had the opportunity to learn from black activists and thinkers like W. E. B. Du Bois.

In 1938, after working for a few years as a teacher, she submitted an application to the social work program at the University of North Carolina, but was denied admission on account of her race. She shifted course and enrolled in law school at Howard University. After graduating first in her class, she applied for a fellowship at Harvard Law, usually guaranteed for Howard’s top graduate. This time she was denied on account of her gender. Exasperated, she replied to this denial with a dry letter asking the Harvard admissions committee members to please reconsider, since a change of heart on their part would be much simpler than a change of gender on hers. They were unmoved by her plea, or her sense of humor. Instead, she pursued masters and doctorate level degrees at UC Berkley and Yale.

A brilliant legal scholar, Murray wrote about gender discrimination and segregation. The lawyers at the NAACP responsible for winning Brown v. Board of Education relied heavily on a book she had written about state laws on race. To explain the overlapping discrimination that she and other black women faced on account of both their race and gender, she coined the phrase “Jane Crow,” one of the first articulations of the concept of intersectionality, which feminist legal scholars have continued to develop in the last few decades. Despite Murray’s academic credentials, she was denied a faculty position at Cornell in the 1950s because her references –Thurgood Marshall and Eleanor Roosevelt – were considered too radical in an era of anticommunist panic.

Beyond her writing, Murray was an organizer. President John F. Kennedy appointed her to the President’s Commission on the Status of Women and she worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. to plan some of the most important nonviolent actions of the 1960s. Though she celebrated the gains of the movement, she was discouraged by how little recognition black women were receiving for their efforts. From Murray’s perspective, black men seemed to be taking the leadership positions, elbowing out women who were working equally hard for the cause. In a speech delivered soon after the March on Washington in 1963, Murray predicted that the civil rights revolution would never be successful without the “full participation and leadership of Negro women.”

As a solution, Murray co-founded the National Organization for Women, which she intended to be a NAACP for women, advancing their legal rights. But Murray still did not rest. As a 62-year-old, she returned to school yet again, leaving a job as a law professor to begin a Masters in Divinity. A few years later, she became the first black woman to be ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church.

Through all of her years of activism and advocacy, Murray’s talent as a creative writer and poet simmered below the surface and sustained her. She would often say that while a lawyer’s job is to identify the facts, a poet’s job is to speak the truth. In her poem, she wrote:

“I have been enslaved, yet my spirit is unbound.

I have been cast aside, but I sparkle in the darkness.

I have been slain but live on in the river of history.”

These words of “Prophecy” are pieces of Murray’s truth. At the time she wrote them, she had already spent a lifetime breaking down barriers, and she felt empowered by the changes she had witnessed. But she knew there was more work to be done. She situated her struggle in the “river of history,” alongside the many others who fought and would fight for equality and inclusion. Murray passed away in 1985, but her own autobiographical, poetic and scholarly writings, in addition to the numerous books and articles written about her in the last several years, have kept the story of a one-woman civil rights movement alive.

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