Pauli Murray: Changed History for Black People and Women

NOW co-founder Pauli Murray was a pioneer civil, human, and women’s rights advocate. Born in 1910 in Baltimore, Maryland, Murray entered a world of segregation, rampant discrimination, and deeply rooted racism. Nevertheless, Pauli was determined to change the status quo.   A new book for young readers recounts Pauli’s important work that changed history – but more on that later. There is also a recent biopic of this amazing individual. 

This great-granddaughter of enslaved persons was orphaned at an early age and grew up in poverty, but succeeded beyond all expectations. Beginning when she was a teenager, Murray challenged discrimination on the basis of race and gender well before the Civil Rights Movement mobilized masses of people to do so.  Nearly twenty years before the historic sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina were organized, Murray coordinated identical acts of civil disobedience in Washington D.C. In fact, Murray’s first sit-in was so successful that the restaurant was forced to desegregate. Further, fifteen years before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a public bus, Murray was arrested for the exact same reason.  

As a scholar of the law, inspiring attorney, and talented writer, Murray established the legal framework for advancing the civil rights movement. While she was in law school, Murray wrote about the harms of racial segregation, especially in schools. The lawyers in Brown v. Board of Education later used Murray’s ideas and writing to prepare for their arguments in front of the Supreme Court of the United States.  

In 1966, Pauli Murray, alongside 48 other feminists, founded the National Organization for Women. A year prior, Murray had proposed this idea to Betty Friedan, one of the most renowned feminist leaders of the time. In this call, Murray convinced Friedan that women should have their own activist organization to represent their needs, similar to how the N.A.A.C.P represented Black interests.  

In 1971, before she was appointed as a Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg submitted an amicus brief for the Supreme Court case Reed v. Reed. This case resulted in a landmark decision when the court ruled that sex-based discrimination was unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Years before, Pauli Murray had written extensively on the 14th amendment and how it established a legal basis for gender equality. Although Murray was not directly involved in Reed v. Reed, RBG acknowledged that her own ideas were derived from Murray’s work. Murray contributed to the ideological framework that later persuaded the Supreme Court to establish a constitutional basis to prohibit sex-based discrimination.  

Murray’s accomplishments are abundant and extraordinary. Not only was Murray one of the first black women to practice law, but in 1977, she became the first black female ordained priest in The Episcopal Church. Moreover, she was a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and advisor to presidents Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. In all regards, Pauli Murray was highly impressive and clearly ahead of her time. In fact, she was so ahead of her time that her importance often goes unrecognized and excluded from the popular narrative of the Civil Rights Movement.  

Over the course of her lifetime, Murray deeply struggled with both her sexuality and gender identity. Born as Anna Pauline Murray, at a young age, she decided to go by the gender-neutral nickname “Pauli.” In her youth, Murray self-identified using both “he” and “she” pronouns, but later in life, consistently employed “she/her/hers” pronouns. Historical accounts confirm that Pauli Murray was romantically involved with at least two women. In fact, Murray held a romantic partnership with a woman for decades. However, Murray did not refer to herself as a lesbian, nor identify with the label in any capacity.   

Pauli Murray was openly queer during a time when it was illegal and dangerous in the United States. It is very likely that the social environment Murray lived in prevented her from fully exploring and expressing her identity and preferences. Moreover, it is likely that the same social environment is responsible for Murray’s absence in American history. As a black queer person, in and of itself, Murray’s identity was controversial. Consequently, Murray’s voice was often silenced, and her accomplishments were often disregarded.    

This month, a biography of Murray was published, titled, “Pauli Murray: The Life of a Pioneering Feminist and Civil Rights Activist.” This book, written by Terry Catasius Jennings and Murray’s niece, Rosita Stevens-Holsey, relays Murray’s life story and details her accomplishments as a queer black activist, attorney, and brilliant writer. The publication is written in verse format and is aimed at middle-grade readers, meaning children ages eight to twelve. You can order it here and through any online bookstore: 

In addition, in 2021, the documentary, “My Name is Pauli Murray” was released. This film follows Murray’s life, focusing on her impact on the advancement of racial and gender equality. The film recounts both the accomplishments she achieved, as well as the hardships she faced. Further, the film focuses not only on Murray’s external struggles, but her internal ones as well, you can watch it via: 

By educating the public – and particularly, the youngest generation – on Murray’s widespread influence and contributions to the Civil Rights Movement, it is more likely that her impact will be properly acknowledged and that her name will carry the recognition it deserves. The history of the fight for gender equality and universal civil rights is incomplete without the narrative of Pauli Murray. Whether as a legal attorney, grassroots activist, religious leader, or writer, Murray broke down barriers and made significant strides towards the realization of racial and gender equality in the United States. In her various roles, Murray was a true trailblazer of her time.  

Nora Weiss, NOW Government Relations Intern 

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